Having scuppered the inspectors, let's not fail the Iraqi opposition

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ONCE AGAIN, bombing Iraq has resulted not in the humbling of Saddam Hussein but in new challenges to the US and British rump of the Allied forces who went to war against him in 1990.

Bloodied but not bowed, Saddam is no longer challenging just the weapons inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom), but the no-fly zones patrolled by British and American planes in Northern and Southern Iraq.

Almost three months after the US Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, endowing the Iraqi opposition with $99m (pounds 61m), including $97m for arms and training, Saddam is obsessed by the fear of a Western-backed uprising in Iraq. Unscom no longer poses a real threat to his regime: long weakened by divisions within the Security Council, the inspectors' only route back to Baghdad after Operation Desert Fox lies in political compromise that will fatally undercut their ability to operate. But the Iraq Liberation Act could activate the latent opposition to Saddam's hated regime, and bring about a replay of the popular uprising of 1991 - backed this time by organisation and no-fly zones able to enforce a military exclusion zone from the air.

Nowhere is Saddam's concern more apparent than in the Baghdad press, which incessantly warns of the dangers of partition, and in his effort to rally the Arab states to demand an end to Western intrusion. In the days since Desert Fox ended, Saddam has used every contact he has in the Arab world to put pressure on pro-Western Arab governments. The United Arab Emirates has called for an Arab summit. There have been demonstrations from Egypt and Morocco to Syria.

But under his bluster Saddam knows that anti-aircraft fire will not demolish the no-fly zones. His only hope lies in continuing the tension, in provoking the United States and Britain into further acts of "aggression" like yesterday's American attack on his air defence sites.

On the other side, however, Washington's commitment to liberating Iraq appears limited by the fiction that Unscom can still be an effective weapon. Tony Blair has even held out hope of "a new and better regime". After the bombing, the pretence - not only that Unscom may survive Desert Fox, but that it may emerge strengthened, to continue its search for weapons of mass destruction.

The view from Unscom is very different. Even before Iraq asserted that Desert Fox had "killed Unscom", the mood among weapons inspectors was grim.

"We are the skunk at the garden party, because we continue to demonstrate that Iraq has not done what it has to do," says a senior Unscom official. "We have made the Security Council's policy look ineffectual and [Secretary General] Kofi Annan's agreement with Iraq look useless. All the Council wants to do is pat itself on the back and boast about its contribution to world peace. Ditto for the 38th floor [where the Secretary General has his offices]. I don't rule out that we will be back doing work in Iraq in some fashion. But what passes for a brains trust on the 38th floor is not going to make us more effective."

Of all the weapons used against Saddam since he sent his troops into Kuwait, Unscom has been the most effective. The most intrusive inspection regime ever devised, it uncovered an arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that exceeded the experts' worst fears - an arsenal so important to Saddam that he has forfeited some 100 billion dollars in oil sales in order to preserve it. Unscom also confirmed Saddam's will to use his arsenal, reporting that chemical and biological weapons were deployed on the battlefield in 1990 with authority to fire them pre-delegated to field commanders.

In the past seven years, Unscom has destroyed much of Saddam's weaponry. But Iraq has yet to give a full accounting of its production of VX gas, the most toxic nerve gas in its possession, and still has to define the full scope of its biological warfare programme. Only last year, a full six years into an inspection meant to last only a few weeks, a British inspector discovered that Iraq was close to weaponising ricin - a lethal plant toxin previously known only as a weapon of assassination.

The same inspector believes that much more remains to be discovered. "We still don't know all the people involved in the BW programme - we haven't even identified the head of the programme - and I for one believe we have only seen a slice of it. In all its others weapons programmes, Iraq has followed multiple routes with multiple teams. We can't prove it's the same with BW, but we're worried."

But not worried enough, in the opinion of some. The opposition Iraqi National Congress claims that Iraq is also continuing work on its nuclear programme, importing significant quantities of heavy metals like titanium through Dubai and despatching agents across the former Soviet Union in search of fissile material for four implosion bombs believed to have been assembled.

But rather than remind the big five of the fundamentals agreed on in 1991 - the need to find and destroy all Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and then to put in place a monitoring regime - the Secretary General is seeking to make Unscom more politically acceptable. Consideration is being given to placing its component parts in other UN bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (whose inspectors gave Iraq a clean bill of health even as it was developing a vast A-bomb programme) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons - monitoring agencies which lack Unscom's robustness and investigative powers.

The Unscom inspectors are in no doubt as to what this would mean. "The bombing has set Unscom back light years," says one source. "Dilute it any more and it would be dangerous." Given the disarray in the Security Council, any future inspection regime can only be a pale imitation of the regime that existed before Desert Fox.

The international community's best effort to render Saddam Hussein harmless has failed, and a radically new policy direction is needed if Saddam is not to hide - and re-arm - behind a charade of watered-down inspections. Barring a miracle in the Security Council, that policy can only be to support the Iraq National Congress - the most serious attempt since the Gulf war to establish an all-Iraqi opposition movement to overthrow Saddam.

Badly weakened by Allied indecision as well as by its own internal tensions, the INC has made major strides in recent months towards reconstructing the consensus that existed after the Gulf war. It has also drawn up a plan of military action with the help of retired General Wayne Downing who, as commander of US Special Forces until 1996, harassed Saddam's Scud launches in the Gulf war and restricted his operations in the Western desert.

Supporting the INC is not without its dangers. But the Allies have failed Unscom. They must not now fail the opposition.