UNITED NATIONS - Scott Ritter, the former U.N. arms inspector who quit two years ago charging that Secretary-General Kofi Annan and American officials were undercutting efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein, now says the Iraqis have no prohibited weapons of any importance left.
Writing in the current issue of Arms Control Today, the journal of the independent Arms Control Association in Washington, Ritter says the inspection team he served as an expert on concealment had effectively rid Iraq of dangerous weapons by 1997.
He argues that less aggressive monitoring of Iraq will now suffice and that inspectors on any new team should not pursue access to Iraqi presidential and security sites, which caused grave conflict with Iraq in the past.
Ritter's article was written before American officials reported that Iraq was rebuilding and testing a short-range missile system, which is permitted under U.N. sanctions and does not appear to be immediately threatening.
But those reports appear to support Ritter's thesis that while the missile tests may be legal, they are the kind of activity that must be monitored on the ground to know if the Iraqis are trying to go beyond what is permissible, or are loading the missiles with prohibited warheads.
In an interview, Ritter said the purpose of his article was to suggest a way to overcome a deadlock with Iraq that has left the country without arms inspections for a year and half.
He said the United States has little support abroad for either unseating Saddam, the Iraqi president, or continuing sanctions indefinitely.
Russia, China and France will no longer follow the United States, he said, and Iraq is strengthened by the division among the Security Council's five permanent members.
"I propose that maybe people should take another look at the disarmament issue in a way that's more satisfactory to all the parties," he said.
Richard Butler, the former executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, which was responsible for monitoring Iraq, said in a telephone interview that Ritter's assertions run directly counter to the reports Ritter submitted when he was in Iraq.
"I didn't see one shred of evidence for these assertions," said Butler, an Australian arms control expert who is a diplomat in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"Ritter's claim that it was evident then that nothing of any importance remained is completely contrary to the advice that he repeatedly and robustly gave me when he was on the staff," he said.
Several expert panels formed by the U.N. inspection commission as well as the Security Council also concluded that Iraq had not adequately disarmed, particularly in biological weapons.