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U.N. Inspectors Can Only Help in Weapons Hunt

Jonathan B. Tucker is a visiting senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. In February 1995, he was on a U.N. biological weapons inspection team in Iraq.

The Bush administration was being shortsighted when it rejected the offer of U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to Iraq.

Instead of availing itself of these inspectors’ expertise in helping to find and destroy Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction, the United States and its coalition allies have taken full charge of the weapons hunt. They have recruited a large team of American, British and Australian weapons experts under the auspices of the Defense Intelligence Agency to search for the weapons. Called the Iraq Survey Group, the team includes more than 30 former U.N. inspectors from coalition countries but lacks the international imprimatur, and hence legitimacy, of the United Nations itself.

Two factors are driving U.S. policy on weapons inspections.

First, Bush administration policymakers are angry because their efforts to persuade the U.N. Security Council that the Hussein regime was in “material breach” of its disarmament obligations were undermined by U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei -- who delivered scrupulously balanced reports to the Security Council.

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Second, U.S. officials see little value in having a parallel U.N. inspection process that would interview many of the same scientists and visit the same facilities, creating operational confusion on the ground.

Nevertheless, sending U.N. inspectors back to Iraq would pay important dividends. In the Arab world and elsewhere, there are conspiracy theories that if the U.S. does not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq it will plant them in order to justify its claim that Iraq’s prewar arsenal posed an imminent threat to global security. Having U.N. inspectors on the ground to validate the discovery of caches of prohibited weapons -- or evidence thereof -- would strengthen the U.S. case in the international public eye.

During 12 years of inspections and analytical work in Iraq, the United Nations acquired considerable expertise on Iraq’s weapons programs, including their history, organization, facilities and key personnel. This institutional memory, preserved in inspection reports, documents and taped interviews, would be a valuable asset in piecing together a comprehensive picture of Iraq’s weapons programs.

Further, even if the coalition’s on-the-ground inspection force numbers about 1,000, it will be spread very thin as it visits suspect facilities scattered throughout a country the size of California. Assuming that a logical division of labor can be worked out, having hundreds more U.N. “eyes on the ground” would facilitate the weapons search, particularly as the window for finding relevant documents and evidence of hidden weapons appears to be closing.

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Though it certainly makes no sense for different teams of inspectors to perform essentially the same tasks, a rational division of labor should and could occur if U.N. agencies were involved. The U.S.-led team might focus on interrogating Iraqi weapons scientists and other regime officials who have been taken into custody, and on visiting clandestine sites listed in the coalition’s sensitive intelligence. The U.N. and the IAEA, for their part, could search for documents, resolve outstanding questions, verify any discoveries of weapons stocks or clandestine production facilities and monitor their destruction in a transparent manner. The U.N. inspectors could also prepare for the long-term monitoring and verification of dual-use facilities, such as pesticide and vaccine plants, to ensure that a future Iraqi government does not attempt to reacquire weapons of mass destruction.

A key element of this plan, however, would be for Hans Blix to step aside.

Although Blix is a capable and experienced diplomat, he is clearly anathema to the Bush administration. In the interest of allowing U.N. inspectors to return to Iraq, Blix should offer to resign a few months before his planned departure in June and allow a successor acceptable to Washington to be appointed.

Continued U.S. refusal to allow international inspectors back in Iraq casts a cloud of suspicion over the main rationale for the U.S.-led war.

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