Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: Saddam Hussein Facing Dilemma On Weapons Issue

The date of 8 December is looming as an important one for Iraq, the United States, and the United Nations. That's the date by which Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must make a full declaration of any weapons of mass destruction he may have. Saddam's government is on record as saying it has no weapons of mass destruction. But U.S. President George W. Bush says that's a lie and that the United States will not tolerate such denials. RFE/RL asked several military analysts how Saddam may confront this problem.

Washington, 15 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Within the next three weeks -- by 8 December at the latest -- Iraqi President Saddam Hussein must declare to the United Nations the details of any nuclear-, biological-, and chemical-weapons programs that he may have.

Saddam has consistently maintained that these programs do not exist, and on 13 November, in its letter to the United Nations accepting the weapons inspectors, the Iraqi government repeated that assertion.

But the United States and many other governments insist that Saddam was close to developing a nuclear weapon shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, and that he has been able to resume that and other weapons programs since UN weapons inspectors were last in his country in 1998.

The question is whether Saddam will continue to insist Iraq has no such weapons when he must formally declare his arms status by the 8 December deadline set by the UN Security Council resolution that imposes a harsh weapons-inspection regime on Iraq.

U.S. President George W. Bush says any Iraq denial that it has such weapons will be viewed as a violation of the resolution and may require the U.S. to initiate military action -- with or without the approval of the United Nations.

Military analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say Saddam probably will make some limited admission, if only because a denial would be widely seen in the UN Security Council as a violation of its resolution imposing a strict new weapons-inspection regime on Iraq.

One is Anthony Cordesman, who specializes in military and intelligence issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an independent policy research center in Washington. Cordesman said Saddam may find a useful, if not necessarily convincing, pretext for admitting to some weapons of mass destruction so soon after saying that he had none: "I think the problem here may simply be one of semantics. He can say that the rounds and weapons he has are demilitarized, he can say that we're talking about dual-use facilities and [suddenly] declare those. There are a lot of ways to work around his initial speech and still make a declaration."

Cordesman told RFE/RL that he believes Saddam has lied about Iraq's weapons programs for the past decade, so it should be easy for him to set up such an excuse without too much embarrassment.

Another CSIS military analyst, Simon Serfaty, says the Iraqi leader may not be interested in sparing himself embarrassment. Serfaty agreed that Saddam is likely to make some weapons admissions, but stressed that there will be a catch: "My guess is that [Saddam] will say more than nothing and less than everything. [Laughs] But quite candidly, he will want to push that deadline as far into the future as possible."

According to Serfaty, Saddam has a history of using delays effectively to hide his weapons. He said the United States and other members of the UN Security Council must be careful not to be drawn into a delaying game that could benefit the Iraqi leader and leave Bush without options: "If he [Bush] concedes to the argument that will be put forward then by the other members of the Security Council -- 'Let's give the inspectors a chance' -- and the inspectors in fact cannot locate anything over the next few weeks, then the president [Bush] will be in a box because he will have to wait for the inspectors to find something."

Cordesman agreed that the Iraqi government is probably poised to use its well-known delaying tactics, but he said Saddam, too, could be in jeopardy if he does not play the game carefully: "This is a very delicate game and it's a very dangerous game. The United States has said it will not overreact to trivia, but if Saddam goes from delays and sort of interference in trying to explore the political limits that are acceptable to anything approaching a material breach, then obviously the president has said that he would consult with the UN but reserve the right to act, and I think in practice that means going to war."

One way that Bush could overcome any objections within the Security Council is to offer strong evidence of Saddam's weapons programs. During an interview, Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, another Washington think tank, was reminded that 40 years ago, the administration of U.S. President John Kennedy used photographs taken by reconnaissance planes to make a convincing case that the Soviet Union was setting up offensive missiles in Cuba.

So far, the Bush administration has not produced any similarly convincing evidence that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. But O'Hanlon said he believes Washington can make a compelling case nonetheless: "No one [piece of evidence] is a 'slam-dunk' argument. It's still a case that you have to sort of present, develop, and argue, as opposed to a photograph you can show, but I think it's a pretty persuasive case."

Caught between Iraq and the United States is the United Nations. The UN has endorsed military action in the past, such as the 1991 Gulf War to drive Saddam's forces from Kuwait, but it was founded to promote peace. And UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged restraint on Iraq.

On 13 November in Washington, the secretary-general told reporters he believes the United States appears more eager to go to war than its fellow members of the Security Council.

Annan said before the United States decides to go to war, it should make sure that it did so only after Iraq substantially defied the Security Council resolution. Otherwise, he said, some might view the Bush administration as acting on what he called "flimsy" provocation.

Cordesman said, however, that if Saddam were to act as he has in the past, Washington would have more than enough justification to go to war: "The problem with Iraq in the past has never been that things have been flimsy. There are something like eight reports by UNSCOM, and each of them found that Iraq was lying and cheating. I don't think that the United States is going to go to war over commas or two-hour delays. But any major event that approaches a new contribution to a material breach is probably going to trigger combat."

O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, views Annan's concern differently. He says the secretary-general and Bush are sending the Iraqi leader two separate messages: "'On the one hand, we will let you stay in power if you disarm yourself. On the other hand, if you make us go to war, we will.' To convey both those messages at the same time is hard, and it's easier if you have Kofi Annan conveying the first part and Bush conveying the second. So I actually see them as working as a team. Whether it's intentional collaboration or not, it has that effect."

According to O'Hanlon, Annan may be able to show Saddam that there is an attractive alternative to defying the UN. He says the choice is and always has been Saddam's.