WASHINGTON -- Call it occupation by another means.
When the United States and its allies defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf war, they forswore the traditional victors' spoils of toppling the government and keeping troops there until the country was transformed to their liking.
Instead, the United Nations Security Council set up something it hoped would have the same effect in terms of controlling President Saddam Hussein's aggression: a system to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and any capability of producing them in the future.
"It is the most intrusive and extensive inspection regime ever imposed on a sovereign state," a U.S. official summarized. The word "sovereign" is used advisedly: "When it comes to their nuclear program, they have no sovereign rights at all. They are totally stripped," he said. The same goes for Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles, officials say.
The full scope of that program is only now becoming widely apparent in the standoff this week between Iraq and 44 nuclear inspectors detained for three days in a Baghdad parking lot. Already, says Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, inspectors have turned up "gold mines."
Iraq complained that information turned up in the inspections, including records showing who was involved in its nuclear program and foreign suppliers, could be used by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies to track down and assassinate individual Iraqis.
Its fears are rooted in the international character of the inspection team. The team now in Baghdad includes both personnel of the International Atomic Energy Agency, such as chief inspector David Kay, an American, and experts from nine countries. There are 27 Americans, five Canadians, two Britons, three New Zealanders, two Australians, two Germans, an Egyptian, a Moroccan and a Syrian. Some of them are on loan from agencies that have intelligence-gathering responsibilities.
In its letter Wednesday essentially capitulating to the inspectors' demands, under renewed military threats, Iraq reiterated that "the main source of the difficulties being encountered is the fact that inspection missions are entrusted to such a large number of United States nationals."
"These United States nationals simply implement the policies of their Government, which persists in violating both the letter and the spirit of the resolutions of the Security Council and imposes ZTC its hostile policies on the Iraqi leadership."
U.S. officials reject the Iraqi complaints as being unworthy of comment. A senior analyst at the Arms Control Association, Jon Wolfsthal, dismissed them as "a crude attempt at propaganda that hopefully will be ineffective."
But an administration official who monitors the inspections acknowledged that he knew of no specific guidelines restricting the flow of information that turns up to the inspecting agencies themselves.
Indeed, much of the detection in the inspections so far has been attributed to the legwork of U.S. and allied intelligence services. Analysts assume that inspectors are sharing at least some results of their work with these services. And the United States and Israel do have a close intelligence-sharing relationship.
Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the amount of sharing would probably be governed by what the inspectors considered necessary to fulfill their mission of tracking down and destroying Iraqi weapons and weapons programs.
What should prevent abuses, said David Scheffer, an international law expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is both the monitoring authority of the Security Council and a code of conduct developed over the years by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"They have to answer to the Security Council for the competence and scope of their work. If they go off the reservation, their credibility will be called into question," he said.
Ironically, the IAEA's inclination to protect its information and sources prompted some complaints that the secretiveness was in part responsible for Iraq's progress toward becoming a nuclear power, Mr. Wolfsthal said.
The agency also has had its troubles with Israel, the only known nuclear power in the Middle East, and the country from which Iraq is especially keen to hide information. For several years, Mr. Wolfsthal noted, the IAEA has annually criticized Israel for failure to submit to international nuclear inspections and to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But Iraq has to get used to the idea, say U.S. and outside experts, that when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, it has no rights at all, and will be living with U.N. and IAEA inspectors for years to come.
One official familiar with administration legal thinking said bluntly, "When there is a conflict between Resolution 687 [the U.N. cease-fire resolution establishing the inspections regime] and Iraqi desire for privacy, it would be resolved in favor of Resolution 687."