NOW THAT Iraq has agreed to admit international weapons inspectors without conditions, the disarmament dance begins. The United Nations-backed teams have until Dec. 28 to begin work in the country. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has until Dec. 8 to declare the extent of the nation's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs. Baghdad, of course, maintains it possesses none of the above and reiterated that claim yesterday when it accepted terms of a tough U.N. Security Council resolution to admit the inspectors after a four-year absence.
Under that guise, Mohammed Al-Douri, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, professed not to be the least bit worried about the inspectors' return -- Mr. Hussein has had plenty of time to hide an arsenal or disguise a weapons factory.
But Iraq's position points up a significant challenge in the disarmament process set out by the United States and the 14 other signatories of Resolution 1441. It will be up to the weapons inspectors to disprove Iraq's weapons-free claim, an assignment previously fraught with difficulty.
There's no question that the return of the U.N. inspection teams delays -- thankfully -- a U.S.-led military strike against the Iraqi regime. But the question is: For how long? The Iraqi regime may fully cooperate with weapons inspectors, but its past practice has shown otherwise. If the inspectors find their work compromised or frustrated by the Iraqis, the United Nations will have to decide if the behavior constitutes a "a material breach" of the U.N. resolution. The Bush administration has insisted that any such finding would result in "serious consequences" for Iraq -- a euphemism for war.
President Bush repeated yesterday that he would not accept deception, denial or deceit from Mr. Hussein. Given those parameters, the administration would be wise to spend the coming weeks discussing with Security Council members and its allies just what constitutes a "material breach." The United Nations may find itself confronted with that situation sooner than it anticipates.
And yet it's been four years since weapons inspectors have scoured Baghdad, its environs and Iraq's remote countryside for weapons of mass destruction. They pulled out in December 1998 as American and British bombers were heading to Baghdad in retaliation for Iraq's treatment of the U.N. teams. Who knows what has been hidden or buried in the meantime?
The teams assembled and trained for the sensitive assignment are new; none of the members has had previous experience in the country. The group will have access to sophisticated new technology and intelligence information to uncover a biological, chemical or nuclear weapons program. Iraq, however, can draw on years of dealing with inspectors -- and deceiving them.
In the dance of disarmament, who will lead and who will follow won't be known until the inspectors enter the country and begin their work.