New U.S. Strategy on Iraq Falters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four months after promising a bold new strategy on Iraq, the Bush administration is instead watching its first foreign policy initiative fall into disarray.

At the United Nations, a last-minute scramble by the U.S. and Britain to win passage of a resolution opening the way for the multilayered strategy appears deadlocked. The resolution would provide the legal framework for easing the world's toughest economic sanctions--and the suffering of the Iraqi people--while tightening the arms embargo on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The current sanctions policy, which began in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait and allows Baghdad to use oil revenue to buy humanitarian goods under U.N. supervision, expires Tuesday. It is now likely to be renewed for another month or two while the debate rages on.

And even if the resolution wins passage, key Middle East governments once receptive to a revised policy are now either wary of the U.S. formula or no longer keen to help make it work. Some who have been trading for cheap oil in violation of the sanctions can't afford to end such operations. Compliance would cost economically strapped Jordan, for example, at least $1 billion a year, Arab envoys say.

As a result, cutting off the world's largest and most lucrative oil-smuggling operation via four neighboring states looks increasingly difficult. Smuggling provides Hussein with billions of dollars in income a year, his only significant source of funds not channeled through the U.N.

"Without major incentives, Jordan, Syria, Iran and Turkey are unlikely to agree" to a new policy, concludes a new report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The bottom line is that the new strategy, which would streamline the list of goods prohibited to Iraq, might alleviate suffering among the Iraqi people--the issue that led Washington to succumb to international pressure and propose an overhaul of the decade-old policy. But the new policy would be as vulnerable to failure as the previous strategy in keeping a disparate array of countries on board, according to Mideast officials, European diplomats, U.S. analysts and former U.N. weapons inspectors.

Part of the problem is that much of the world is almost as weary as Iraq of the punitive approach, which affects foreign investors, Baghdad's creditors, energy markets and Iraq's 22 million people.

"The new policy will be highly vulnerable to several factors, many beyond U.S. control. They include new factors like backlash from the Arab streets for U.S. support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon," said Judith Yaphe, a former intelligence analyst now at National Defense University in Washington. "They include ingrained practices that will make it almost impossible to cut off all Iraq's oil smuggling.

"But they also include a world that simply doesn't care as much as we do and is anxious to do business with Baghdad again. It's going to be very hard to get cooperation from enough of the players to make a new policy work."

The new strategy is most vulnerable, however, on the issue of eliminating Baghdad's deadliest weapons. Since 1991, the preeminent U.N. goal has been to ensure that Iraq does not again threaten stability in the oil-rich region. U.N. sanctions will not be lifted until Iraq is given a clean bill of health by U.N. weapons inspectors. As reformulated, the new strategy could even backfire, according to former U.N. weapons inspectors and U.S. analysts.

'An Inspection Regime That Is Ready to Go In'

At his Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned that "the only tool [Hussein] can scare us with are those weapons of mass destruction, and we have to hold him to account. We have an inspection regime that is ready to go in under new U.N. authority."

But the mandate of the new inspection regime, approved by the U.N. Security Council in December 1999, has changed in subtle ways that could make ensuring that all of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles are destroyed virtually impossible--even if Baghdad accepts the inspectors--U.S. analysts and former inspectors warn.

The original inspectors--who tracked down thousands of tons of weapons between 1991 and 1998--were charged with certifying that all the deadliest arms were found and eliminated. And they had virtual carte blanche to do it, backed by the threat of military retaliation if Iraq didn't comply.

Their mission was aborted, however, when they were withdrawn before the U.S.-led Operation Desert Fox airstrikes in 1998. The strikes were launched in response to Hussein's obstruction of weapons inspectors, and Iraq never let them return.

The new team, in contrast, must only certify that it is unable to find anything more. The inspectors are unlikely to comb the countryside or reconstruct what Baghdad has acquired to determine everything it produced--meticulous detective work that depends as much on documents as war materiel, former inspectors and U.S. analysts say.

Under the previous rules of engagement, Iraq had to prove its innocence--by revealing all it had built or acquired and then completely destroying all arms and production facilities. Under the new system, the weapons inspectors have to prove that Iraq is still guilty. If they are unable to find anything in the places they look, then Baghdad may be given a clean bill of health.

But former U.N. inspectors and U.S. intelligence officials are convinced that Hussein concealed a strategic reserve--probably a small number of missiles with biological or chemical agents, plus an active research and development program in all weapons--that was never found. And Baghdad has had three years to hide the materiel even better.

"If new inspectors go in under the ambiguous terms of U.N. Resolution 1284, then they run the risk of having inspections that will fail--that will be easily manipulated by the regime and that will end up giving Iraq a clean slate simply because inspectors can't find anything else," Yaphe said.

The potential dangers ahead were evident in 1995 when the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, came perilously close to certifying that Iraq was at least partially clean. Then Hussein's son-in-law defected, which led to the discovery of tons of documents that produced stunning new revelations about Iraq's capabilities until then totally unknown.

The United States will have little recourse and less input this time around. The new team, which reconfigured its membership to counter complaints of U.S. domination, "contains" America's role by giving top jobs to inspectors from France, Russia and China. Those nations--along with the U.S. and Britain, constituting the permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council--have been the most active in promoting an end to sanctions, former inspectors say.

"The inspections are designed to be kinder, gentler and more transparent--to Iraq. They will not be intrusive, go-anywhere inspections like they were in the past," said Charles Duelfer, a former assistant U.N. secretary-general and the longest-serving former U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq.

The bottom line is that getting a weapons team into Iraq may actually prove more of a danger under new rules that don't encourage the years-long process of unraveling weapons production from beginning to end.

"Within the constraints that the international community is now working, it will basically be impossible to disarm Saddam--short of occupying the country, which isn't viable either," Duelfer added.

Oil Smuggling May Prove Difficult to End

The second problem for the new U.S. strategy is the plan to end Iraq's oil smuggling. For the policy to work, all parties must agree not to smuggle, and to cede tens of millions of dollars they make from Iraqi oil price discounts of up to 50%. As soon as one country deviates, others are likely to follow, oil analysts predict.

"U.S. policy is susceptible to a mixture of Hussein's needs and conniving and the realities of corruption, bribery and smuggling that are widespread in the region," said Henri Barkey, a former State Department policy planning staffer. "Some party is certain to crack. Iran is at the top of the list."

The Bush administration is exploring the use of monitors on Iraq's long and treacherous borders to check all cargo. But the cost of thorough inspections would be prohibitive, even if Iraq had to pay the bill. And smugglers could still find holes in the border, analysts say.

As the policy is now set up, there is more incentive to cheat than to comply. Greed by just one party could unravel the whole system, the analysts add. And as long as Hussein has an independent source of income, he can still work on or procure weapons of mass destruction.

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