How can we stop Saddam and his weapons of hell?

He told me how troops took prisoners from a Baghdad jail and tested the nerve agents on them
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The Independent Culture
SOME WEEKS ago, before the current crisis over Iraqi weapons erupted, I met the man who for several months was the hate figure of choice for the Iraqi leadership. At the time Scott Ritter was telling anybody who would listen that a crisis was looming with Saddam Hussein over the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

As the UN's former chief weapons inspector in Iraq Ritter knew better than most what Saddam was concealing from the eyes of the world. Widely acknowledged as the most effective investigator ever sent to Iraq Ritter told me a hair-raising story of nerve and chemical weapons programmes.

He described how he had acquired reliable intelligence that Saddam's troops had taken prisoners from a Baghdad jail and tested the weapons on them, quite literally using the men as human guinea pigs. Ritter described all of this in a matter-of-fact tone. There was no hyperbole. Just what he said were the facts.

At the time the West was involved in a face off with the other great bully of our times, Slobodan Milosevic and Ritter's warnings about Saddam were relegated to the inside pages.

Ritter is forceful and exudes a self assurance that borders on arrogance. A former Marine commander, he summons up images from the pages of Marvel comics, an all-American super hero for whom self doubt is not an issue. And yet as I listened to his story I had to accept that he was an exceptionally sincere man who was telling the truth about Saddam's weapons.

When I met him he had just recently resigned from his post after angrily accusing the British and Americans of failing to support the inspection mission. His thesis was that any thorough programme of weapons inspection would inevitably lead to confrontation with the Iraqis. The reason was simple: Saddam had a great deal to hide and had no intention of letting Ritter or his successors at Unscom get anywhere near the truth. And so the Iraqis blocked and obstructed. They targeted Ritter and called him a US spy. They demanded his sacking just as they now demand the sacking of his boss Richard Butler.

All of this would have been manageable, he said, had he been given the full support of Washington and London to forge ahead with his plan of inspections of Iraqi presidential sites. But, as Ritter describes it, the British and the Americans pulled the rug out from under his mission, refusing to back the inspections and opting instead for a policy of non- confrontation with Saddam. The Iraqis - always quick to spot any sign of weakness - responded by gradually abandoning any pretence of compliance with the inspections programme.

When he quit, Scott Ritter was denounced as a bull in a diplomatic china shop. The American government did everything it could to blacken his name, even suggesting that he had worked as a spy for the Israelis. The Foreign Office was more polite. He had been a fine inspector but somehow didn't appreciate the bigger political picture. Nonsense. Ritter understood it only too well. What he refused to do was shut up and play along with the pretence of weapons inspection.

Which is what has led to this week's unhappy juncture. The Iraqis understood perfectly that there was no western will to enforce compliance by military means. And so now they have simply stopped co-operating. Saddam's gamble is that the West will make angry noises but will stop short of ordering military action.

His campaign against Unscom and its inspectors has been perfectly calibrated. He has known exactly when to push and when to give the appearance of compromise. And for a man who cares so little about the value of human life (excepting his own) he has a masterful appreciation of how much value the Americans and the British place on the lives of their soldiers and airmen. There is no public will for action in the Gulf. Although Mr Blair would probably find it easier to make a case for action to the British public than would Mr Clinton to the Americans, it would still be an uphill struggle.

To be fair to both leaders they are dealing with a problem created before either of them came to power. Saddam has endured because another American President decided not to advance on Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War. As we have heard many times since, "the job was left unfinished". Unlike, say, Japan at the end of the Second World War, there was no takeover, no imposition of a Pax Americana under which a new society could have been built.

Now, however, whether or not the decision to stop short of toppling Saddam was correct at the time is a moot point. The war cannot be refought and there will be no punitive expedition to Baghdad to sort out Saddam. He is the political reality in Iraq and barring a successful coup inside the country, he will remain in power for some time to come.

It is also time we accepted that the regime of sanctions against Iraq is utterly futile. It has manifestly failed to force compliance with the weapons inspection programme. Saddam does not yield to economic pressure because it does not hurt him personally. He truly does not believe in "society" or "humanity" and therefore is impervious to the pain inflicted on ordinary Iraqis. They are good propaganda fodder and little else.

And so we in the West are in the morally deplorable position of ensuring that ordinary Iraqis are screwed even further into the ground while the dictator is allowed to portray himself to the Arab world as a brave defender of his people.

What can Blair and Clinton do in the face of Saddam's defiance and his durability? The answer seems to be: very little. So far the two governments have been careful to temper their rhetoric and not to raise the prospect of immediate military action. This is wise. The more war talk and muscle flexing, the greater the degree of humiliation if they are forced to step back from the brink yet again. And if they are contemplating military action, the people must be told - without scare stories, just the facts please - what weapons are being developed in Iraq and why the people of Liverpool or Leeds or London or Des Moines or New York should be worried about them.

If Saddam does not climb down, then London and Washington may reluctantly take the view that military action is unavoidable. The Cruise missiles and bombs will descend on Iraq. The Arab world will react with anger but the bombs will not remove Saddam. If anything he will emerge with even greater stature among those who regard the Americans as deeply partisan players in the wider Middle East drama.

And be assured that if there are civilian casualties, Saddam will not be the one who takes the blame.

At best a military attack might temporarily curb the dictator's impulse to thumb his nose at the West. If the bombs and the intelligence are truly "smart" - and after Sudan there must be grave doubts - then the Iraqi weapons programme can be stopped before it becomes a serious threat to regional peace. Alas the number of "ifs" and "buts" involved here are truly unsettling.

I know that Scott Ritter would send in the bombers and that he would advance a convincing argument for doing so. The difficulty with Iraq is what you do afterwards. We have spent the best part of eight years trying to answer that question and are none the wiser. Any ideas?

Fergal Keane is Special Correspondent with BBC News