WASHINGTON -- William H. Webster, director of central intelligence, voiced doubt yesterday that Iraq's Saddam Hussein would ever willingly join an international arms control process and get rid of his weapons of mass destruction.
If Mr. Hussein survives, the Persian Gulf region will probably never be secure "unless there is some countervailing force present in the area" and he no longer has access to such weapons, Mr. Webster said.
His comments get at the heart of debate about Iraq's long-term threat to the region that supplies much of the world's oil and whether it can be contained in the future even if Mr. Hussein withdraws peacefully from Kuwait.
Officials, including Secretary of State James A. Baker III, have suggested that if the crisis ends without war, Iraq could be restrained from further aggression by strengthening friendly Arab states with U.S. weaponry and intrusive measures to cut its weapons arsenal and establish a regional non-proliferation regime.
Arms cuts could be enforced by continued sanctions, Mr. Baker has suggested. But he has left vague what form a "regional security structure" would take.
The CIA director avoids speaking out on policy. But his comments offered reason for skepticism at least over the likelihood of curbing Iraq's weaponry. It already possesses chemical and biological weapons and is reported to be just years away from producing nuclear weapons.
"I find no real confidence that that area will ever be secure again as long as he is there, unless there is some countervailing force present in the area, whether it's regional security or some other means, or unless he has been disassociated with his instruments of mass destruction in one form or another," Mr. Webster told a questioner at the National Council of World Affairs Organizations.
Later, he said, "I don't have a lot of confidence" in the idea that Mr. Hussein would "be part of an international conference and solution in which these weapons would somehow disappear."
Mr. Webster said that the top ranks of Iraq's military are the only people within the country "in a position to stop his path of terrorism and ruthlessness," since Mr. Hussein has crushed all public dissent.
U.S. intelligence is already seeing "a little" discontent in the military, and Mr. Webster said he expects it to grow.
He said that this is encouraging, but "a thin reed to put hope on at the present. . . . I think we need to remind ourselves we had all of that in spades in Panama, and it took something else to make it change."
The CIA director said that there should be no question of Mr. Hussein's willingness to resort to chemical weapons, even pre-emptively, and that Iraq has protective equipment for its forces.
He also said there is no doubt that sanctions are beginning to take a toll, cutting off 98 percent of oil exports and as much as 90 percent of Iraqi imports.
Few of the sanctions, however, affect Mr. Hussein's military machine, he said.
"He's an experienced leader of a country at war; he knows the value of stockpiling -- he's done so." There is evidence that Mr. Hussein is "retreading" military equipment, but there's "a heavy possibility that he's doing this on purpose in order to have a longer-range view of handling his military requirements."
Iraqi forces are growing and digging defensive positions along the Kuwaiti-Saudi Arabian border with the aim of forcing the United States into a costly ground war if hostilities break out.
Mr. Hussein's basic strategy is thus "to sit tight, if he can, unless he is threatened with imminent peril. In that way, he hopes for fissures to develop on the world community, for leaks in the embargo and for basic questioning about long-term presence of non-Arab forces in that part of the region."