Troops Search for Weapons in Iraq; UN Debates Sanctions

Paul Kerr

U.S. military forces are continuing their so-far fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Meanwhile, a debate has begun about whether United Nations weapons inspectors should return to Iraq, now that the military conflict has mostly ended.

Although there have a been a number of press reports that coalition forces have located evidence of an Iraqi WMD program, no conclusive proof has been found. For example, reports that U.S. forces had discovered mobile laboratories for making biological weapons agents turned out to be false, according to U.S. Army Chief Monte Gonzales in an April 15 CNN interview. General Vincent Brooks stated April 22 that U.S. forces have “not found any weaponized chemicals, biological agents, or any nuclear devices at this point.”

U.S. officials have repeatedly claimed that coalition forces will find evidence that Iraq has a hidden WMD program but say it will be necessary to interview Iraqi scientists and other officials to find prohibited weapons. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted during an April 13 interview on CBS’s Face the Nation that “we’re not going to find” prohibited weapons without the help of knowledgeable Iraqis.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher argued April 9 that the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provides an opportunity for Iraqi scientists to speak without fear of intimidation, saying the Hussein regime “never allowed” Iraqi scientists to speak freely to UN inspectors. UN inspectors reported that the Iraqi government had allowed them to conduct some interviews without the presence of government officials or recording devices a few weeks before the invasion.

Rumsfeld introduced an additional theory to explain the lack of weapons discoveries in an April 13 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, saying the United States has “reports” that Iraq might have sent prohibited weapons to a neighboring country. Boucher refused to say during an April 21 press briefing whether the United States had evidence that this had occurred.

President George W. Bush offered a third explanation for troops’ failure to find WMD, asserting during an April 24 interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw that Iraq “perhaps…destroyed some” prohibited weapons.

U.S. officials emphasized that the process will take time. Major General Stanley McChrystal stated April 14 that the inspections process “will go for an extended period of time” and that inspection teams have visited only a “small percentage” of suspected weapons sites.

Although U.S. officials had said they possessed intelligence information suggesting that some Iraqi forces had chemical weapons and the authority to use them, no such weapons were used during the conflict.

UN weapons inspectors left Iraq March 18—the day before the coalition invasion started—after almost four months of work, when the United States failed to gain support from Security Council members opposed to the immediate use of force against Iraq.

UN Inspectors’ Role Debated

Meanwhile, the Security Council debated the future role UN weapons inspectors might play in Iraq. Under existing Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until inspectors from the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) determine that Iraq has complied with disarmament requirements imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Several resolutions also call for inspectors from UNMOVIC and the IAEA to perform a long-term monitoring role to prevent reconstitution of prohibited weapons programs.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in an April 22 press briefing that Washington wants the Security Council to pass a new resolution to lift the sanctions, arguing that they “no longer serve a useful purpose.” Boucher indicated April 21 that Washington wants to maintain “some restrictions on…military goods.”

Although Boucher said April 23 that the administration has not ruled out a future role for UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, Fleischer indicated April 22 that the administration was cool to the idea, saying “the United States and the coalition have taken on the responsibility for dismantling Iraq’s WMD.” A UN official stated in an April 28 interview that the United States has approached some members of the UNMOVIC staff and asked them to join U.S. inspection teams.

Exactly when the United States wants the sanctions lifted is unclear. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte said in an April 22 press statement that the sanctions “should be lifted as soon as possible.” Boucher stated, however, that the sanctions should be lifted “at an appropriate time,” after the United Nations makes necessary adjustments to the UN-administered oil-for-food program.

France proposed suspending the sanctions during an April 22 Security Council meeting, French Ambassador to the United Nations Jean-Marc de la Sabiliere told reporters. Russia and France had previously supported lifting the sanctions only in accordance with existing UN resolutions, which would require UN inspectors—rather than U.S. inspection teams—to verify Iraq’s disarmament.

Boucher described the French proposal as “a move…in the right direction” during an April 23 press briefing, but he also said that “more work [needs] to be done” to settle the issue. He added that the United States is reluctant to cut a deal in the United Nations over the inspections issue.

UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix briefed the Security Council April 22, stating that UNMOVIC inspectors are completing the “analysis and assessment of data” from past inspections. He added that UNMOVIC is maintaining a field office in Cyprus and has 85 inspectors under contract until mid-June. After that, UNMOVIC would have to reactivate inspectors from its 315-person roster, he said.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Blix argued that the Security Council “would like to have the inspection and verification [completed by UN teams], which bear the imprint of that independence and of some institution that is authorized by the whole international community.” He added that UNMOVIC inspectors could work with coalition forces, saying “I don’t see an adversarial relation.”

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei also said that his agency should resume work in Iraq “as soon as possible” in an April 22 statement to the Security Council, adding that “the IAEA continues to be the sole organization with legal powers…to verify Iraq’s nuclear disarmament.”

Fleischer stated April 22 that the United States’ existing disarmament procedures provide sufficient transparency and credibility.