STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- He thought the job might take just six months. He thought -- because, to his logical Swedish mind, this was only logical -- that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would cooperate immediately with postwar weapons inspectors because Iraq badly needed to resume selling its oil. Rolf Ekeus admits now that he made a miscalculation -- a 66-month miscalculation.
Instead of six months, it has so far taken six years, and still counting. Ekeus has left his job as the chief U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq a wiser and more worried man. In an interview in Stockholm, he expressed grave concerns that Iraq will go back to producing weapons of mass destruction while a world community that has lost interest in the Persian Gulf war and its consequences looks the other way.
Now about to become Sweden's ambassador to the United States, Ekeus is deeply worried that Iraq is still hiding weapons, particularly biological ones. Iraq previously has admitted manufacturing and storing nearly 25,000 quarts of anthrax bacterium -- enough, in the words of Jane's International Defense Review, "to kill the Earth's entire population three times over."
The Iraqi government says that its biological weapons have been destroyed. "But in my judgment they are still hiding them," Ekeus warns. "They have not given a full account. So to me it is not a matter of giving them a green light" and moving toward lifting sanctions on the sale of Iraqi oil.
Time -- and world indifference, not to mention oil greed -- may be on Hussein's side. While the United States and Ekeus do not believe Iraq is in compliance, three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Russia, China and France -- have been pressuring the United Nations to lift the sanctions.
The next report on Iraq's weapons status is due from the inspection team in October.
And there are fears on the U.S. and British side that Ekeus' replacement, Australian diplomat Richard Butler, will be less tough and more inclined to give Iraq a clean report.
rTC Next month, 61-year-old diplomat Ekeus (pronounced ee-KEY-oose) takes his ambassadorial post in Washington. It's an understatement to say that no matter what challenges he faces in the United States, they are sure to be less traumatic than the conditions that confronted Ekeus and his U.N. inspection team in Iraq.
It was there, over the course of 35 trips, that dying children were thrust toward Ekeus' face by angry Iraqis who accused him of being responsible for their impending deaths. He and his inspection team members were threatened by Iraqi troops and Iraqi helicopter pilots. At one point they were held hostage in a bus by Iraqi soldiers and police.
Constantly shadowed by Iraqi "minders," Ekeus and his 150-plus international team still managed to uncover at least part of the weapons stockpile that Hussein is not permitted to have under treaties that ended the gulf war. Thanks to persistence, U.S. spy technology and some very helpful Iraqi defectors, the team found hidden pieces of weapons or plans for weapons of all sorts -- conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear -- and in the strangest places, including under garage floors, underwater and a former chicken farm.
It was in 1991 when the soft-spoken, tall, silver-haired Ekeus was asked to become executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) -- the inspection team charged with making sure that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction or the means to make new ones. Iraq had agreed to the weapons inspections after its humiliating defeat by a U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf war that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
Under U.N. Resolution 687, the cease-fire that ended the war, Iraq was told it could resume worldwide sales of its oil -- vital to its economy -- only after the special commission headed by Ekeus gave it a clean bill of health on disarmament.
Optimistic at first about the inspection job's feasibility, a disenchanted Ekeus retired from it in July using words like "mislead," "conceal" and "cheat" to describe the government of Saddam Hussein. But Ekeus doesn't consider his work a failure. "It's quite a success," he says wryly, to be able to work at all "with someone in complete denial like Hussein."
When first offered the job in Iraq, career diplomat Ekeus was working in a comfortable assignment as leader of the Swedish mission for European security talks. He was living in Vienna with his wife and four of his six children. The Iraq assignment did not appeal to him.
"I was not at all thrilled with this job, I was not flattered," he recalls, dining on a smorgasbord lunch of smoked salmon at Stockholm's Grand Hotel. But he also told himself, "this is an offer you cannot refuse I have a duty to do it."