Gulf Crisis: UN inspectors to play tough in Iraq

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The Independent Online
AS SOME 90 weapons inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (Unscom) prepared yesterday to head back into Iraq after the military dramas of last weekend, it is impossible not to wonder how long it will be before they are again barred from doing their work by President Saddam Hussein.

This is no idle question. The record of President Saddam is clear. Each time he has been faced with military punishment he has backed down from confrontation with Unscom and promised again to co-operate. And each time he has reneged within weeks.

This is what we saw in February. President Saddam had been barring inspectors from his presidential palaces and so the United States and Britain deployed a big force in the Gulf and threatened to bomb Iraq.

On that occasion Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, went to Baghdad and agreed a memorandum of understanding with President Saddam that promised to open all doors to the inspectors.

It was several months before we knew for sure that the agreement was proving as worthless as all previous ones. Tension increased until 5 August, when President Saddam curtailed the work of the inspectors. Even as the Security Council tried to defuse the stand-off by promising to launch a "comprehensive review" of the 1991 sanctions on Iraq, President Saddam cut off co-operation with Unscom entirely on 30 October.

Critical to the slow degradation of Iraq's relations with Unscom during the months after February was the policy being pursued in Washington.

Behind the scenes, the Clinton administration was urging Unscom to go gently on President Saddam. It did not want Unscom to trigger a new confrontation unnecessarily. If Mr Clinton's words on Sunday are to be taken at face value, policy in Washington this time will be different. When the inspectors return to Iraq this morning they will be expected not just to resume their work, but actively to test the latest pledges of President Saddam.

Mr Clinton could hardly have been more adamant. He went so far as to list five criteria by which the sincerity of President Saddam's promise will be tested. Iraq, he said, must "resolve all outstanding issues" raised by Unscom; must give inspectors "unfettered access" to all sites; must "turn over all relevant documents"; must abide by all relevant UN resolutions; and must not interfere with the inspectors.

Mr Clinton and Tony Blair added that if President Saddam attempts to duck any one of these criteria, the military punch that was so credibly assembled over recent days will instantly be delivered.

Already there are signs of trouble. When the Security Council met on Sunday formally to accept the Iraqi climbdown, alarm bells sounded again as Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, went on television to make a statement that seemed partially to undo commitments made in the letters of capitulation delivered on Saturday. It was a brief panic quickly cleared up by a telephone call from Mr Annan to Mr Aziz. But diplomats saw it as a bad omen.

Tension is likely to develop quickly, moreover, over plans for the comprehensive review that the Council says it will still undertake of the sanctions. Baghdad evidently expects that process to begin soon. London and Washington will block it, however, until the inspectors have tested the Iraqi promises.

How fast can the inspectors, who are to resume their work in earnest tomorrow, move to do that? Perhaps not as fast as Washington and London would like. Because Iraq has had ample time in recent weeks to shuffle any incriminating evidence of weapons, it may be able to open its doors wide to inspectors in the knowledge that it will be weeks or months before they begin to sniff gunpowder again.

There is one thing Richard Butler, head of the inspection team, could try immediately: he could demand today that Iraq hands over documents discovered at Iraq air force headquarters this summer that seemed to contain details of its chemical-weapons capabilities.

In August Mr Aziz told Mr Butler that the documents would not be given to Unscom - ever.

But handing them over was one of Mr Clinton's five criteria. If Mr Butler asks and Iraq again demurs, we could soon be back in military mode, perhaps before the end of this week.

And if Washington is serious, military mode will mean immediate military strikes.