Iraq To Accept UN Inspectors; U.S. Officials Skeptical

October 2002

By Paul Kerr

UN weapons inspectors can return to Iraq “without conditions,” Baghdad said September 16, reversing a stance that has barred inspectors from the country for almost four years. The announcement followed a September 12 speech by President George W. Bush before the UN General Assembly, calling on the United Nations to enforce its resolutions on Iraqi disarmament and suggesting that, if it did not, the United States would take unilateral action.

UN Security Council Resolution 687, passed in 1991, required Iraq to submit to UN weapons inspections and dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs, but Iraq has refused entry to inspectors since they were withdrawn just prior to U.S. and British air strikes in December 1998. The Bush administration has repeatedly cited Iraqi noncompliance as a potential justification for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

After Iraq and the United Nations failed several times to reach agreement earlier this summer, Iraq finally sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on September 16, four days after the Bush speech, saying it would allow inspectors to return. At first, Baghdad did not promise unfettered access to all sites, but on September 24 Amir al-Saadi, an adviser to Hussein, stated that UN inspectors “would have unfettered access and [can go] wherever they want to go,” according to a Reuters news report.

In addition, when asked during a September 23 press conference about the possibility that Iraq would restrict inspectors’ access, Annan replied that he viewed the Iraqi letter as “a commitment” for inspectors to work in “an unimpeded manner.” Annan had advised the Iraqis on the letter.

How much freedom inspectors will actually have in Iraq, however, remains unclear. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri read a letter from Hussein before the United Nations September 19 asserting that Iraq “is clear” of weapons of mass destruction and stating that the inspectors are expected to “respect” Iraqi “national security and sovereignty.” Iraq has used these conditions to restrict inspectors’ access in the past. The letter also stated that Iraq wanted to discuss inspections “on a comprehensive basis,” echoing demands the country made in August.

A day after Iraq sent the letter to Annan, members of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) met with an Iraqi delegation to hold “preliminary talks related to the resumption of inspections,” according to an UNMOVIC statement. UNMOVIC, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Iraqi delegates are scheduled to meet again in Vienna from September 30 to October 1. UNMOVIC is responsible for verifying Iraq’s dismantlement of its chemical, biological, and prohibited missile programs, and the IAEA is responsible for Iraq’s nuclear program.

One of the items on the agenda for the Vienna meeting is Iraq’s backlog of semi-annual reports, which it was required to provide to inspectors, listing its holdings of dual-use equipment and materials related to weapons of mass destruction. The reports, which Baghdad has said it will deliver to UNMOVIC at the meeting, include information on the location and use of the equipment and materials since 1998.

According to an informal UNMOVIC paper circulated in the Security Council September 19, an advance party of inspectors could arrive in Baghdad as early as October 15. The paper estimates UNMOVIC will need two months to procure equipment and recruit inspectors, as well as conduct preliminary inspections of certain sites, before it can officially begin inspections and determine what key disarmament tasks remain.

Iraq’s announcement represents significant progress from recent diplomatic exchanges between the United Nations and Iraq. The last meeting between Iraqi officials, Annan, and UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix took place in Vienna July 4-5 but failed to reach an agreement for returning inspectors. Annan also rejected an August invitation for UNMOVIC experts to visit Baghdad, saying it did not allow for the immediate admission of inspectors, as required by Security Council Resolution 1284. (See ACT, September 2002.) Annan met with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz September 3 during the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development but again failed to make progress on an agreement.

As recently as August 15, Iraq had demanded a “comprehensive settlement” that would link discussing the return of weapons inspections to resolving a series of other issues, including economic sanctions, a nuclear-weapons-free-zone in the Middle East, the removal of the U.S.-and U.K.-enforced no-fly zones, and the U.S. policy of creating regime change in Iraq. The United States and the United Nations both considered this position unacceptable.

Bush Calls on UN to Act

The Iraqi decision to accept inspections came on the heels of President Bush’s September 12 UN address, in which he encouraged the United Nations to take action on Iraq’s continued refusal to obey Security Council resolutions.

During the speech, Bush presented the U.S. case for action and listed steps Iraq must take if it “wishes peace,” including eliminating its weapons of mass destruction programs, ending support for terrorism, ceasing its violations of the oil-for-food program, and respecting human rights. The inclusion of these issues represented a shift in the administration’s justification for its Iraq policy, which had previously focused on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs.

Bush added that the United States would work with the Security Council to “hold Iraq to account” and suggested that Washington might take unilateral action against Iraq if the United Nations did not enforce its resolutions. “The purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions will be enforced…or action will be unavoidable,” Bush said.

Earlier that day, Annan had made a speech stressing the importance of multilateralism, adding that “for any one state…choosing to follow or reject the multilateral path must not be a simple matter of political convenience,” signifying disagreement between the United Nations and the United States as to how best to proceed.

A September 12 White House background paper for the speech listed Iraqi violations of Security Council resolutions, including its pursuit of weapons programs and human rights violations. In addition, British Prime Minister Tony Blair released a dossier September 24 charging that Iraq is producing chemical and biological agents, trying to obtain uranium for weapons purposes, working to extend the range of its missiles, and conducting other activities prohibited under UN resolutions.

Despite Iraq’s promises, U.S. leaders expressed doubt that Iraq intends to actually provide complete access to inspectors. In September 19 testimony before the House International Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that “there is absolutely no reason at all to expect” that Iraq’s offer “is not another ploy,” citing Iraq’s past refusal to comply with inspectors. He also indicated in a interview with National Public Radio the same day that the administration reserves the option to take unilateral military action. Iraq’s subsequent offer of unfettered inspections did not change this stance, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said September 24.

It is unclear if Iraqi compliance with inspectors would affect the U.S. goal of removing Hussein from power. Washington expressed skepticism about the efficacy of inspections, and Fleischer said in a September 20 press briefing that “the inspection process is not the end result…. The end result is destruction of weapons.” In a September 25 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Powell said that the best way to disarm Iraq was to effect regime change.

Meanwhile, the White House sent a resolution to Congress September 19 seeking authorization to take military action against Iraq. The resolution would give Bush broad power to “use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force” in order to enforce UN Security Council resolutions and “defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq.” Congress is divided over the measure because of its broad mandate and endorsement of unilateral action. It is uncertain when a vote will take place.

U.S., U.K. Seek New Resolution

The United States and the United Kingdom have drafted a resolution to present to the Security Council in an attempt to strengthen the inspection regime, igniting sharp debate among its members. They argue that Iraq has repeatedly violated its obligations under earlier resolutions and that the United Nations must pass a new resolution augmenting inspectors’ authority and identifying the consequences of noncompliance. It is uncertain when the draft resolution will be formally presented.

One of the top U.S. and British concerns is the status of “presidential sites” under existing resolutions. Resolution 1154 endorsed a February 23, 1998, memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Annan and Iraq, which placed special conditions on inspections of these sites. Although the MOU does not give Iraq the right to impede the inspectors, Iraq has used these sites to conceal potential weapons activities, according to some former UN inspectors. The terms of the MOU are still in force, according to a September 25 interview with a UN official.

In his September 19 testimony, Powell said that the United States would take a hard line on a new resolution, requesting that the Security Council find Iraq in “material breach” of existing resolutions and specifying that must comply with conditions called for in Bush’s September 12 speech. Powell said that inspectors would need a stronger resolution “that removes any weaknesses” of the previous inspections system. He added that the resolution must “produce disarmament, not just inspections,” and implied that it could call for the use of force, saying “[T]here must be hard consequences…. Iraq must comply…or there will be decisive action to compel compliance.”

Some Security Council members, however, have questioned the need for a such a resolution. “We favor a rapid resolution” based on existing resolutions, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, according to a September 26 Associated Press report. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan also called on countries September 19 to resolve the situation “on the basis of relevant UN Security Council resolution.”

The French position is more ambiguous. A French Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated September 20 that Paris does not believe a stronger resolution to be necessary but that a “resolution that would firmly remind Iraq of its [disarmament] obligations…could be useful.” French President Jacques Chirac supports a two-step process in which one resolution would demand the return of inspectors and the second would authorize any action needed to be taken, according to a statement by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin quoted on the ministry’s Web site.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Iraq would not accept any new resolution regarding inspections, The Washington Post reported September 28, adding to the uncertainty of the degree of access inspectors will have.