Is Iraq Sincere or Merely Stalling?

Times Staff Writer

When chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix goes before the Security Council at 10 a.m. Friday, his assessment of Iraq's record of compliance during the last three tense months will have to reflect the maddening contradictions in Baghdad's performance.

On the one hand, U.N. arms monitors here acknowledge, Iraq has -- especially in recent days -- become quite eager to please the inspectors. Suddenly, missiles are being flattened, old biological bombs are being dug up, scientists are stepping forward for private interviews, and proposals are being offered to try to verify the long-ago disposal of chemical agents.

On the other, the foot dragging and hesitancy that have marked Iraq's disarmament linger. That may be partly a matter of institutional inertia and a national compulsion for secrecy. Perhaps more significant, it may reflect a desire at the highest political level to continue to take risks with the international community.

Blix, in his last written report to the U.N. Security Council, said the Iraqis were becoming more cooperative in offering explanations and trying to address unresolved issues.

But why, he asked pointedly, had it taken the Iraqis three months to reach that stage?

The question that remains, with the U.S. administration losing patience and more than 250,000 allied troops already poised on Iraq's borders, is whether the latest cooperation represents a serious effort at disarmament or whether it is more a way for the Iraqis to buy a little time -- either to prepare for war or to at least enjoy life before the storm hits.

And the unfortunate answer, even among the inspectors, is that they are not sure.

King and His Camel

Iraqis are fond of the story about a powerful king who loved his camel so much that he offered a palace, a bride and a pile of gold to anyone who could teach his camel to speak. A poor man stepped forward and said he would do it -- but said it would take at least six months of working with the animal.

"Are you mad?" the man's friends asked.

"Not at all," he answered. "In six months, the camel may be dead. The king may be dead. Or I may be dead. And in the meantime I will be happy."

On the surface, inspectors continue to do their work and Iraqis continue to cooperate, doggedly offering up new documents, new explanations, new proposals to fill the gaps in Baghdad's record of weapons production and disposal.

But to long-standing questions such as what happened to Baghdad's stores of anthrax and the nerve agent VX, the inspectors have so far obtained only partial explanations, fragments of documentary records and offers to run soil tests that seem unlikely to provide conclusive proof.

Moreover, Baghdad has made frequent assertions that it is now "clean" -- making inspectors believe that Iraq isn't planning to tell them anything they don't already know.

In other words, if Iraq does have mobile laboratories to produce biological weapons, or if it has buried such facilities deep underground, as the U.S. charges, nothing about Iraq's recent behavior gives the inspectors confidence that the regime will now confess.

Rather, to many inspectors, Iraq has taken the dental approach: The facts must be pulled out.

In Iraq, playing for time has become a national tradition in more than 20 years of nearly continuous warfare, starting from its invasion of Iran in 1980. Iraqis will often say, "We live in today because we don't know what happens tomorrow."

An example of Iraq's habit of drawing things out would be its performance regarding its estimated 120 Al-Samoud 2 medium-range missiles, which Blix deemed as proscribed and ordered destroyed by March 1.

Instead of agreeing to the demand issued Feb. 21, the Iraqis answered a few days later that they were "studying" the matter, while President Saddam Hussein in an interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather appeared to imply that Iraq did not accept the finding. It was not until the day before the deadline that Iraq agreed to the destruction, and it began the work on the last possible day.

Even then, Iraq chose the time-consuming method of crushing the missiles with bulldozers rather than blowing them up. And it assigned only two teams of technicians to the task, implying that each team could destroy a maximum of three missiles a day.

Privately, U.N. officials say they believe that one Iraqi team could destroy several more missiles a day than Baghdad claims, and they don't understand why Iraq did not assign more teams so the task can be carried out more expeditiously, in order to show the world that the regime is serious about obeying the U.N. directives.

If Iraqis are just playing for time, it doesn't mean that there are not some officials here who realize the gravity of the situation. And they are sometimes quite pessimistic.

Gloomier Demeanor

Gen. Amir Saadi, the presidential advisor on weapons inspections, appears to wear a progressively glummer face at his news conferences. Although he says he is doing his best to carry out disarmament, there is a fatalism in his demeanor suggesting that he thinks none of it will matter in the long run.

Some observers of Iraq's power structure here suggested that the stop-and-go nature of cooperation may have to do with an internal struggle between members of the intellectual classes serving the government and the traditional streetwise elements close to Hussein. The latter are used to the tough haggling of the bazaar, and they see any gesture of concession as an indication of weakness, while the former are worried that the fight over disarmament is fruitless and only hurting Iraq.

If the United States does decide to intervene, it may never be known which camp would have prevailed.

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