WASHINGTON -- Defying nearly five years of intense world pressure, Iraq has preserved a weapons arsenal powerful enough to wreak mass destruction in the Middle East and is trying to improve it, according to U.S. and United Nations officials.
U.S. officials believe that Iraq is hiding warheads containing chemical and biological agents, as well as dozens of Scud missiles capable of reaching Persian Gulf adversaries and Israel. Iraq has 7,000 skilled technicians ready to resume development of nuclear weapons once international pressure eases, the officials say.
Iraq has managed to hang on to that arsenal in the face of nearly five years of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the most intrusive arms inspections ever conducted.
"The disturbing new element is that we're now seeing strong evidence of continuing Iraqi activity," said Charles Duelfer, the No. 2 official of the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, the agency created to destroy Iraq's weapons
program and to set up a permanent monitoring system.
"It's not that they're just withholding what they did in the past, but they are demonstrating an intention to continue their prohibited activity," Mr. Duelfer said in an interview this week.
Meanwhile, strains have emerged in the international coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait and agreed to the sanctions. Citing budget pressures, Germany plans to reduce the number of helicopters it provides UNSCOM, which are used to conduct surprise inspections around Iraq. The commission is due to run out of cash next spring.
No less significant are the signs of dissension within the leadership of Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally. The former top Saudi military commander suggested recently that the economic sanctions be eased.
This has produced concern in the Clinton administration that its policy of maintaining sanctions against Iraq may be losing ground.
Part of the problem, one U.S. official said, is that too great a burden is being placed on the commission.
"The best we say is, 'Keep going, UNSCOM!' " said the official, who watches Iraq closely. UNSCOM needs a credible military backup, says the official, who acknowledges that his is a minority viewpoint in the Clinton administration. "I'm not convinced there's a quick fix," another U.S. official said.
Established as part of the cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf war, UNSCOM is authorized to find and destroy all Iraqi programs involving weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry and long-range missiles. It also is charged with setting up a system to ensure that Iraq produces no more of the weapons.
U.N. resolutions call for keeping a tight economic embargo until the commission is satisfied that it has brought Iraq's dangerous weapons under control. This means that Iraq cannot resume unlimited oil sales, which could generate billions of dollars a year for President Saddam Hussein's regime.
A tough job, well done
Operating on a budget of just $30 million a year -- plus donations of manpower, equipment and intelligence from the United States and its allies -- UNSCOM has drawn praise for the amount of Iraqi weaponry that it has uncovered. In fact, the commission has destroyed more weaponry than the United States and its allies did during the Persian Gulf war.
Much credit is given to the quiet determination shown by its executive chairman, Rolf Ekeus, a 60-year-old Swedish diplomat.
He has the difficult task of maintaining pressure on Iraq without appearing beholden to the United States.
"He's had to play a politician's game," said David Kay, a former commission official, "and he's done it superbly."
But so far, Iraq has proved more than a match for the commission.
"There's been an elaborate deception the whole time," said Terence Taylor, a former commission member and now deputy director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
The extent of that deception began to emerge in August with the defection to Jordan of one of Mr. Hussein's top aides, Gen. Hussein Kamel.
Blaming General Kamel for its past evasions, Iraq released a torrent of new information, including the admission that it had produced biological weapons. And new evidence of past deception continues to emerge: Iraq recently disclosed the existence of hidden nuclear weapons equipment.
The disclosures do not mean that Iraq has decided to cooperate fully with the commission. According to Mr. Taylor, Baghdad releases only the information that it believes the U.N. commission already has acquired.
In an interview in Washington this week, Mr. Ekeus said Iraq had not abandoned its deception, it simply had become more subtle.
Mr. Hussein wants to persuade the U.N. Security Council to allow Iraq to resume oil sales and to keep some weapons, he said.
In a report last week to the Security Council, Mr. Ekeus wrote: "The commission believes that, while a great volume of documentation has been made available, many of the most important documents remain and are still being withheld from the commission."
Sounding an upbeat note during a Washington visit, Mr. Ekeus predicted that eventually the commission would get to the bottom of Iraq's weapons programs. Its investigators have acquired enough knowledge that "we have a momentum now" in obtaining new material from Iraq, he said.
He expressed optimism about a long-term effort to monitor Iraq's activities. Even so, he acknowledged, it will take "a long time" to get to the bottom of Iraq's weapons programs.