U.N. hits a nerve in Iraqi circles Uncertainty increases as inspectors close in on elite's secrets

November 05, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Iraq's latest attempt to block U.N. inspectors came as officials were learning more about the "Praetorian Guard" formed to protect both Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his dangerous weapons programs, officials say.

Although Hussein backed away yesterday from his threat to expel U.S. inspectors, the United Nations' discoveries may have touched a sensitive nerve in Baghdad and made future Iraqi actions even more difficult to predict.

"We're trying to follow leads, and where the leads have headed is toward organizations that Iraq is sensitive about. The closer we get to them, the more irritated Iraq becomes," said Charles Duelfer, No. 2 official of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), the agency created to oversee the dismantlement of Iraqi weapons programs.

The key elements in Iraq's concealment efforts are an elite military unit called the Special Republican Guard, along with the better known Mukhabarat intelligence agency, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.

The Special Republican Guard is described both as a distinct organization and a subgroup of the Republican Guard, which U.S. officials in the past considered the best trained and equipped of Iraqi forces. Estimates of the special unit range up to 22,000 men.

"They are the real Praetorian Guard of the regime," said Kenneth Pollack of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Praetorian" derives from the elite guards of Roman emperors.

Led at one time by Hussein's second son, Qusay, they are assigned to protect the president in the event of coup attempts by the army or the Republican Guard. They also serve as the military protectors of the Iraqi capital, Pollack said.

Crises like the one brewing between Iraq and the United Nations have usually ended with Iraq backing down after a show of determination by the U.N. Security Council. But U.S. policy-makers may face a more complicated scenario this time if Hussein fears that his entire concealment apparatus is threatened, says one specialist.

"If the U.N. is pressing forces close to Saddam, it makes it much more difficult for him," says Thomas L. McNaugher, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. "He's got to worry that the Americans will manage to pick targets that are valuable to him. There's a very small list of things Saddam really cares about." If those targets are threatened militarily, McNaugher added, "that might make him feel less secure personally."

Officials did not say that U.N. discoveries about the Special Republican Guard prompted Hussein to make his latest challenge to the inspection. But a senior administration official said, "I think it makes him angry that people are getting close to secrets he wants to protect."

More broadly, however, U.S. officials say that Iraq wants to wreck the U.N. inspection program, which the senior official described as the "linchpin" of international efforts to contain Iraqi aggression.

Baghdad apparently sought to exploit cracks within the U.S.-led coalition that reversed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait six years ago. Both France and Russia are interested in developing business opportunities in Iraq once the Security Council lifts economic sanctions.

Analysts also say Iraq may have been afraid that U.N. inspectors were about to uncover a significant stockpile, perhaps of the lethal nerve gas VX.

Weapons of destruction

The suspicion that Iraq possesses and continues to develop dangerous weaponry represents the biggest continuing source of confrontation between Baghdad and the United Nations.

"They've been hiding everything they could since the very beginning," a former U.N. inspector, Bill Nelson, said in a CNN interview yesterday.

By maintaining even a small secret program, Iraq could quickly rebuild its capacity to threaten the Middle East with weapons of mass destruction once U.N. restraints imposed after the Persian Gulf war are lifted, analysts fear.

Of most serious concern is Iraq's ability to develop biological weaponry, which has the potential to kill tens of thousands of people.

Last month, UNSCOM charged that Iraqi claims that they had destroyed their biological arsenal were not even "remotely credible."

Michael Moodie, president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute based in Virginia, said Iraq probably had or still possesses both anthrax and botulinium toxin. The latter can cause quick death if inhaled. Iraqis are also believed to possess stockpiles of VX.

The other two prohibited weapons programs are offensive missiles and nuclear arms.

The Iraqis have tried to modify defensive missiles, which are allowed under U.N. resolutions, to give them an offensive capability, a U.N. official said.

Capability preserved

Iraq's atomic weapons program has largely been halted, officials say. But Baghdad has refused to or claimed that it was unable to disclose all of its suppliers, as demanded by the United Nations, and it retains a cadre of scientists on the government payroll who could quickly be enlisted to start the program again, a U.S. official said.

Analysts fear that once U.N. inspections are dismantled, Iraq will resume its dangerous weapons programs.

"Once UNSCOM leaves he'll be back in business," Moodie said.

Besides hiding part of its existing weapons programs, Iraq is suspected of trying to develop new weaponry, says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This includes research into biological and chemical weapons, the ability to turn nuclear fuel into nuclear weapons rapidly, and development of more destructive warheads than it had in the past.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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