WASHINGTON - Acknowledging that U.S. credibility is on the line, the Bush administration is considering enlisting United Nations weapons inspectors to verify any discovery by American military teams of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The role that U.N. inspectors should now play in Iraq, if any, is expected to be sharply debated in a closed-door Security Council meeting today, when inspections chief Hans Blix gives his first report since before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The United States has no intention of giving the United Nations a major role in the search for Iraq's banned weapons, which is already being conducted by U.S. military teams and experts and will be bolstered in coming weeks by hundreds of additional people, officials said.
But officials from the United States and its close ally, Britain, are aware of the widespread suspicion in the Arab world that U.S. military teams might plant evidence to justify the invasion, and they see U.N. inspectors as one way to show that any discovery is legitimate.
"There's going to have to be some kind of U.N. role in that process," an administration official said yesterday. "There are allegations that [evidence] will be planted. It would be a good thing to find a compromise."
British Foreign Office official Mike O'Brien told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday: "We need to have some element of independent verification."
"The U.N. inspectors are clearly a possibility for doing that," he said. "We are talking to the Americans and other allies and indeed the U.N. about how verification can be carried out."
Officials in Washington said no decision had been reached by the Bush administration. The Pentagon is opposed to any role by Blix's organization, according to one official.
President Bush repeatedly cited the need to disarm Iraq of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs as his main reason for launching a war to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein. The United States and Britain angered France, Russia and other members of the Security Council by starting the invasion at a time when U.N. inspectors had been on the ground in Iraq for only four months.
Blix has been asked to brief the council by several member countries seeking a greater role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq than the United States has agreed to. U.N. envoy Gennady Gatilov of Russia told the Itar-Tass news agency yesterday that "the fact that Iraq has no such weapons must be confirmed by international inspectors who had to leave Iraq because of combat actions."
Russia has threatened to withhold support for lifting economic sanctions against Iraq until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq has been disarmed. A suspension of sanctions is required before the country can resume exporting oil. The resulting oil revenues are to help provide the billions of dollars needed to rebuild the country.
Not 'dogs on a leash'
Blix is expected to tell the council that he can reassemble his inspectors and take them back into Iraq in two weeks. But he has resisted playing a subordinate role to the U.S. military search teams, saying recently that his inspectors are not "dogs on a leash."
In a recent interview with the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, he said that U.N. inspectors "enjoy a far higher credibility" than would the U.S. military.
"If [U.S. and British] experts now really were to find weapons of mass destruction, their authenticity might be doubted," Blix said.
But Blix's cautiously hopeful assessments of Iraqi cooperation in the weeks leading up to the war have left a bitter aftertaste with some U.S. officials. Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, told reporters recently that Blix's agency, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, had "a mixed record" and that the presence of journalists on the ground might be enough to give credibility to U.S. weapons finds.
Blix's appearance today is likely to be "the starting point for a messy debate," a U.N. official said. Some diplomats have speculated that experts from other countries or the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Warfare, based in The Hague, Netherlands, could be enlisted to verify weapons discoveries instead of Blix's agency.
In the month since the war began, U.S. troops and investigators have turned up a number of tantalizing leads about Hussein's suspected cache of chemical and biological weapons, and have taken into custody several high-ranking Iraqis who may be able to shed additional light on the weapons programs. But so far, no hard evidence has turned up.
Officials say they don't know why Iraq never fired on U.S. and allied troops with chemical weapons during the conflict. One possible explanation was that Iraqi officers were deterred by clear U.S. threats to prosecute them as war criminals; another was that the weapons themselves were too well hidden to be readily retrieved during the rapid U.S. advance.
Administration officials still hold to their belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, but they appear to be lowering expectations about how much will be found.
"I don't know about large quantities," a senior administration official said last week. "I have no doubt that they have a chemical and biological weapons program and that they were pursuing nuclear weapons. ... They did not have nuclear weapons, and we never said that they did."
Yesterday, another senior official said, "I think we will get much more information about the nature of [Iraq's] programs." But he added that he did not know if the searches now under way would uncover actual weapons or weapons agents separated from warheads. "I remain confident that they had clandestine programs from the 1990s to 2000," the official said.
Without referring to the United States directly, Blix told Der Spiegel that the intelligence he received on banned weapons was "rather miserable."