The 7-year-old United Nations program to ferret out and destroy Iraqi arms may well be finished off by the current round of airstrikes, leaving the United States even less able to prevent Saddam Hussein from threatening his neighbors and the world, according to experts in the field.
The program was praised yesterday by former U.N. inspectors and other experts as a unique experiment in arms control that will leave a trove of invaluable intelligence on Iraq and an important technological legacy.
Without it, the future is less certain, potentially more dangerous.
"We've entered a very risky path, and we really don't know where it's going to lead," said Raymond Zilinskas, an expert on biological weapons who served as a U.N. inspector in Iraq in 1994.
David Kay, another former inspector, said the airstrikes "will make the rubble bounce, but [Saddam] will climb out of it and say, 'Look, I triumphed. UNSCOM is no longer welcome here, and they've shown themselves to be tools of the Americans.' "
"The bottom line is, you need an inspection regime to deal with this threat," said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You can't deal with it only with air-
strikes. It is just impossible to find and then effectively target resources that are so small and so easily dispersed."
In the absence of constant pressure from the inspectors, who became connoisseurs of the subtleties of Iraqi duplicity, Saddam Hussein may well begin to convert existing factories to produce biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons. Apart from periodic bombing runs to damage Iraqi infrastructure, the United States may have few ways to slow him down.
"Saddam Hussein has demonstrated that he's prepared to sacrifice the well-being of his people and give up billions in oil revenue in order to build weapons of mass destruction," said William C. Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Our options are unfortunately very limited."
Potter noted that in announcing the missile strikes, President Clinton said they were intended only to "degrade" Iraq's weapons-making capacity.
"He didn't say 'eliminate' that capacity, and I think that's because he knows that's not possible," Potter said.
U.S. officials have suggested that the decision to order airstrikes represented a recognition that UNSCOM, the U.N. Special Commission that along with the International Atomic Energy Agency has served as a watchdog over Baghdad since the end of the Persian Gulf war, would have to be sacrificed.
National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said Wednesday that while the United States hopes Iraq eventually will allow U.N. inspectors back in, he added: "I think that is a highly unlikely development."
Observers of the mercurial Iraqi leader cautioned that nothing can be ruled out, and UNSCOM inspectors did return to Iraq after U.S. attacks in 1993 and 1996. But the consensus was that UNSCOM's work is over.
"Anything's possible when the smoke clears," said Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. "But the Iraqis were making a joke of UNSCOM, and this gives [Hussein] a chance to end it altogether."
Betts added that the end of UNSCOM may even have a "silver lining," because its continuing existence had caused some Western countries to become complacent about the Iraqi threat.
But during years of persistent, often frustrating investigation, UNSCOM "achieved a great deal," said Thomas Graham Jr., a veteran U.S. diplomat who retired last year as Clinton's special envoy for arms control.
On the 30th floor of the U.N. headquarters in New York, it has amassed an unmatched collection of intelligence on Iraqi weapons development that is likely to remain useful for years.
The multinational inspection teams grew expert at finding the fingerprints of illicit arms programs. "You have a corps of trained inspectors, and you have them in many countries," Zilinskas said.
UNSCOM developed new technology to keep track of the Iraqis, including 300 sensors that took air samples 24 hours a day, sniffing for traces of prohibited chemical agents. It used satellites and inspections to track some 91 industrial plants -- from vaccine factories to breweries -- that could be converted to produce biological weapons.
In the future, such conversions may be tough to detect and even more difficult to destroy using general airstrikes.
"I don't think the U.S. can justify bombing every vaccine plant in ++ Iraq," said Jonathan B. Tucker, a weapons expert at the Monterey Institute, who visited Baghdad with UNSCOM in 1995. "Some of those plants really are making vaccines. It's a moral dilemma."
Tucker said U.S. policy-makers clearly hope Hussein will not lTC remain in power for long. But his rapid departure is unlikely, and his replacement would not necessarily reverse his policies, he said.
"Iraq has a nasty political culture, though Saddam has taken it a step further. He has real megalomaniacal ambitions," Tucker said.
Pub Date: 12/18/98