Before war can begin, more talks are likely

Top U.N. inspectors want new evidence from Iraq of dismantled weapons

February 08, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush says the "game is over" for Saddam Hussein, but several weeks of intense diplomacy might lie ahead before a U.S.-led invasion to oust the Iraqi dictator becomes inevitable.

If Bush wants broad international support for a war, which polls show the American public would prefer, he might have to wait until at least the end of this month or early next month for a United Nations Security Council resolution that provides a fresh authorization for military action, U.N. diplomats say.

Even assuming that neither France nor Russia exercises a veto, the council might set a deadline for Hussein to capitulate, possibly allowing Arab leaders time for an 11th-hour effort to lure him into exile.

Bush said of Hussein yesterday, "He's the person who gets to decide war and peace," an acknowledgment that Baghdad still holds some control over events.

On the diplomatic front, the countdown toward war starts today, with the arrival in Baghdad of the two chief U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, for two days of meetings with Iraqi officials.

Both men say they want a clear sign from Iraq that it will disarm voluntarily by turning over new information about its weapons of mass destruction programs or evidence that it has dismantled them. Although ElBaradei has asked for a meeting "at the highest level," there is no sign that the inspectors will talk to Hussein.

However persuasive Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's 76-minute indictment of Iraq may have been at the United Nations last week, the impartial assessment of the two inspectors will carry more weight with Security Council members, particularly France and Russia, who don't want to be seen as being dragged along by the United States.

At a news conference expected about 11 a.m. tomorrow, Blix and ElBaradei are likely to give an initial report on the degree of cooperation promised by the Iraqis.

They won't be impressed by mere procedural concessions, such as allowing U.S.-supplied high-altitude spy planes to monitor inspection sites or Iraq's decision to begin allowing private interviews with its weapons scientists, U.N. officials say.

The ensuing five days of inspections, drawing on new intelligence supplied this week by the United States, will begin to show whether Hussein fears war enough to make what a Security Council diplomat called "a total turnaround."

After returning to New York, Blix will consult behind closed doors Wednesday with his board of advisers, an international panel that includes a top arms control official from the State Department, John S. Wolf.

Throughout the week, the White House will turn a highly skeptical eye toward the inspections under way, setting a high threshold for the kind of Iraqi behavior that would buy the Hussein regime a further lease on life.

"It's past the time where we can accept him dribbling out a little at a time," a senior administration official said this week.

To be credible, this official said, Iraq would have to "start to lead inspectors to where they've hidden anthrax, botulinum toxin, sarin and VX; bring out real documents, identify people to be interviewed, admit they have weapons, say they're prepared to take the dirt off mustard gas, and destroy their Al Fatah and Al Samoud missiles."

On Friday, eyes will once again turn to the Security Council as Blix and ElBaradei deliver judgments on Iraqi cooperation with inspectors. Their reports could set the council on a course for war or stop the clock on the countdown.

As Powell told a Senate committee Thursday, "I think it will start to come to a head when Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei return from Baghdad."

Blix and ElBaradei are aware of the stakes: The Bush administration is likely to seize on any negative statement as a failing grade for Iraq and a "material breach," meaning grounds for war. At the same time, the two inspectors are publicly committed to disarming Iraq peacefully if at all possible.

Iraq knows the stakes as well, and diplomats say Hussein might try to provide just enough cooperation to keep the council divided.

A mixed report would prompt France to press anew for strengthened inspections, with a doubling of inspectors and permanent overhead surveillance.

If the chief inspectors report that Iraq has failed to cooperate meaningfully, phones will light up in world capitals in a hectic drive to negotiate the terms of a new resolution authorizing the use of force. By then, France may have moved closer to the United States and Britain.

"If they come back and say there is no way they can work in Iraq, that would change the situation," a French diplomat said yesterday.

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