Slow-motion crisis unfolds in Iraq

Posted: Tuesday, December 10, 2002

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Smoking guns or ironclad explanations. Telltale clues or believable excuses. The world will look for many things in the suitcase full of words known as the Baghdad arms declaration.

In the end, however, at the bottom of that suitcase, all it may find is a muddle -- the Iraq muddle it has lived with for years.

Early signs suggest it. Asked whether the 12,000 pages finally answer lingering questions about Baghdad's weapons programs, a key Iraqi general shot back that the answers given long ago were good enough. Asked, in Washington, to show the world its ''solid evidence'' of Iraqi doomsday arms, the Bush administration said it would -- sometime.

With neither dramatic defenses nor indictments in sight, the Iraq story may shift, for weeks to come, to the quiet, demanding grind of the U.N. inspections, daily unannounced visits to chemical plants, medical labs and nuclear research centers to keep tabs, on the ground, on what Iraq is up to.

The mass of documents Iraq delivered over the weekend to the United Nations was required under the new U.N. Security Council resolution that sent the weapons inspectors back to Iraq, after a four-year absence.

That resolution required Iraq to make an ''accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects'' of all nuclear, chemical and biological programs. It was a tall order.

The complexity of the resulting documents, at least 12 bound volumes packed in a suitcase carried into U.N. headquarters in New York, can be imagined from the fact that the manager of a single chlorine plant says he contributed extensive data about all the plant's operations over 12 years, from 1991 to 2002.

That was multiplied by at least 1,000, and probably many more, factories, offices, laboratories, storage sites and other enterprises across this nation of 23 million people, places whose equipment, products or knowledge could -- theoretically -- be applied to weapons making.

In addition, the declaration reviews the history of Iraq's past programs in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles, from their development in the 1970s and 1980s to their dismantlement by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s, when tons of chemical and biological weapons were destroyed.

Meeting with journalists late Sunday, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, a top adviser to President Saddam Hussein, described just one section, on the nuclear bomb program, outlining hundreds of pages of detail about everything from ''gaseous diffusion'' to ''device development,'' and ending with U.N. demolition of the Iraqi nuclear vision.

That's what the Baghdad arms declaration is.

Then, there's what it isn't.

The U.N. resolution mandated that Iraq declare any current holdings of weapons of mass destruction. But Baghdad denies strenuously that it still has chemical or biological weapons, or any revived nuclear weapons program. Even if they do exist, the Iraqis are highly unlikely to have provided helpful clues in the declaration to caches of weapons or secret production facilities.

Almost as strenuously, the Bush administration says it knows Iraq is hiding such weapons.

The United States has ''solid evidence'' of it, the White House says. Thus far, however, through months of threatening war against Iraq, Washington has not publicly produced any conclusive evidence or shared it with the United Nations and its inspectors.

The Americans are playing a ''game,'' al-Saadi said. ''If they have anything ... let them forthwith come up with it.''

But then the general was asked whether his own government, in its giant declaration, came up with documents or other evidence called for by U.N. officials to resolve discrepancies and gaps in accounting for the materials of doomsday weapons after the 1991 Gulf War.

Has Iraq, for example, still not documented its reported destruction of 1.5 tons of VX, a lethal nerve agent? The U.N. inspectors once found traces of such neutralization at a designated site, but could not verify the amount.

Al-Saadi retorted that Baghdad had supplied U.N. officials with ''some first-class evidence,'' and it was rejected because of U.S. and British pressure.

What about Iraq's biological weapons program, whose documentation was found by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s to be riddled with ''black holes'' that suggested possible hidden supplies?

Referring back to that partial evidence, the general replied, ''Those documents have not been increased since then, not by a single document.''

It's clear, then, the declaration won't come close to exonerating Iraq. But neither will it convict.

Instead, undramatic as they may be, bits of information gleaned from the documents -- new production lines, scientific experiments, transferred equipment -- should help the inspectors refine and adjust their Iraqi targets and work schedule, as they crisscross this country and slowly wrap its military-industrial complex again in a cocoon of long-term monitoring, one that many hope can contain Iraq without the conflagration of war.

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