The mood in Baghdad's Canal Hotel, where the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission is headquartered, was eerily similar this week to what it must have been like on the eve of the U.S. and British military strikes in 1998. In an interview with Salon, UNMOVIC spokesman Yasuhiro Ueki criticized Iraq's "piecemeal approach," contrasting it with the "wholesale cooperation" that was needed. It is possible, as senior U.S. officials have begun saying anonymously, that the Bush administration has already decided to go to war, no matter what the inspectors say or Iraq does. But as the United Nations Security Council faces a wrenching debate on the dueling Iraq resolutions introduced by the U.S.-British and French-German-Russian camps, and Saddam Hussein's regime gives off contradictory signals, war may not yet be inevitable -- and if so, the signals that come out of the Canal Hotel could play a major role in what comes next.
"We are just a technical team," Ueki stressed. "We don't decide matters of war and peace. That is up to the Security Council." Even so, it was not hard to detect a note of baffled pessimism in Ueki's voice as he sat in the Canal Hotel's well-stocked cafeteria. "Disarmament through inspections is the alternative to disarmament by force," said Ueki. If the Iraqi leadership realizes this, he said, then why does it not immediately and unreservedly extend its cooperation, "if it has nothing to hide?"
On Tuesday, Iraq once more handed over a stash of documents, relating to chemicals, biological agents and raw materials that could be used in the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that UNMOVIC regards as unaccounted for. The response was typical of the piecemeal approach that Ueki decried: the U.N. has repeatedly sought clarifications on this very issue, but Iraq has not consistently cooperated. Still, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, called the development "positive," saying that the documents included, among other information, a letter saying "they have found an R400 bomb containing a liquid" at a site where biological weapons were destroyed. At the same time, though, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein seemed to defy Blix's call for the destruction of the Al-Samoud 2 missile that exceeds the range limit that the U.N. has imposed on Iraq for such rockets.
"We do not have missiles that go beyond the proscribed range," Saddam Hussein insisted in an interview with CBS anchorman Dan Rather. Blix has ordered Iraq to start destroying the missiles by March 1. Ueki said the destruction of the Al Samoud was a fairly straightforward affair and that Blix's instructions did not leave room for much doubt of what had to be done. The missiles were reported by the Iraqis themselves in their list of weapons programs they submitted to UNMOVIC. Such U-turns and stop-and-go cooperation is typical of the regime's approach. "They have to become much more proactive," repeated Ueki, a sentiment often expressed by the inspectors.
Following the inspectors around early one morning gave a sense of the futility of the exercise. As they have done almost every day since inspections resumed in November, the UNMOVIC jeeps charged out of the Canal Hotel parking lot at high speed. They were followed by at least as many cars of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate liaison agency as well as by more discreet, U.N.-marked, secret service cars, with journalists bringing up the rear.
After a breakneck chase of some 80 minutes, first through Baghdad's morning rush hour and then along smaller country roads, the convoy arrived at the gate to the Al-Fatah factory near the holy city of Kerbala. The factory makes components for the Al Samoud 2. Following the high-speed chase, the arrival was something of an anticlimax. The factory gate swung open without missing a beat and the inspectors and their Iraqi minders entered. This was the second time in less than a week that they had visited the site to "tag" Al Samoud components. While it is undoubtedly important for the destruction of the missiles, it hardly constitutes the kind of hard-hitting surprise visit that might prove anything, one way or the other, about the existence of Iraqi WMD programs.
Ueki stressed that UNMOVIC is mainly in Iraq for inspection and verification, not so much for detection and certainly "not to spy on Iraq." This point was echoed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his speech to Parliament on Tuesday. The idea that inspectors could conceivably sniff out the weapons and documentation relating to them without the help of Iraqi authorities is absurd, he said. "They are not a detective agency, and even if they were, Iraq is a country with a land mass roughly the size of France."
While UNMOVIC cannot in any way interfere in the political battles now raging in the Security Council, Ueki almost disdainfully dismissed the idea that more manpower would make much of a difference. France and Germany have mentioned a possible tripling of the number of inspectors in Iraq. "We will need more people once we open another office in Basra (in southern Iraq)," Ueki said, "but otherwise we are fully operational with the staff we have now." Other support, such as drones from Germany, would be welcome, he said.
Rather than beefing up the inspections, indicated Ueki, what is needed is the drastic change of attitude that co-chief inspector and head of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, has called for. "We still have not seen that," said the spokesman. Iraq had shown a more cooperative attitude on substance in February, said Ueki, rather than just on procedure, as before. That was why the chief inspectors had given it a relatively positive report. Iraq had agreed to the flight by American U2 spy planes as part of the inspections.
The most significant issue, though, and the one that may lead to a major confrontation between the U.N. and Iraq, concerns the "unaccounted-for materials." Iraq says it has destroyed these chemicals, biological agents and raw materials used to produce them, but has not presented any concrete and watertight evidence to prove it. Blix's positive report was partly based on the Iraqis' handing over documents earlier in February that related to these compounds, as well as a list of scientists who were involved in the programs and who were said to have been present at the materials' destruction.
But "just handing over a list is not enough," Ueki said. UNMOVIC is insisting on conducting private interviews with the scientists as a key to verifying what happened to the unaccounted-for materials. Despite repeated Iraqi promises, that has not happened yet in the way the inspectors have demanded. "We asked to see five of them but they all insisted on taping the interview so they can prove to the government what they said. That is not our idea of a private interview." The government presented three "volunteers" for totally private interrogations, but they were not the people UNMOVIC had requested. Over the last couple of weeks there has not been any development on that front. UNMOVIC is awaiting instructions from New York after having been frustrated in its efforts.
As American and British troops and materiel pour into the Gulf region and the likely invasion date grows ever closer, many Iraqis too are wondering what the regime is doing. "Why don't they just give complete and immediate insight into everything?" complained one government official, who, not surprisingly, insisted on the utmost anonymity. He speculated on why the destruction of the materials had not been thoroughly documented, even filmed or photographed and immediately presented to the inspectors, as the regime knew that it would one day become an international issue. "Only one explanation is possible," he said. "They still have it; it has never been destroyed."
Ueki would not comment on such speculation, but he agreed that the lack of immediate and total disclosure was surprising in the light of the military buildup by U.S. and British forces in the region and the risk of military action that noncompliance carries with it now. It was, he said, reminiscent of Iraq's game-playing approach to inspections in the 1990s, which resulted in the air-strike campaign called Operation Desert Fox.
In Iraq, analysts speculated on why the regime is persisting in playing this dangerous game. Some said it was too late now for Saddam Hussein to reveal his WMDs: The loss of face would undermine his regime. Others concluded that the regime still thinks it can get away with it and is making a huge miscalculation, just as Saddam did in Kuwait in 1991 when he was given ample opportunity to withdraw but did not. Saddam Hussein may have been emboldened by the relatively positive report to the Security Council by the arms inspectors and by the widening split in the international community that resulted. He may also feel supported by the huge antiwar protests around the world as well as the presence of numerous peace activists in Baghdad, including voluntary "human shields."
Iraqi officials sounded almost elated after Blix's report. "The Americans will never dare to attack us now," was the almost identical line taken by several of them. One senior official of the ruling Baath Party who is closely involved in shaping Iraq's image abroad, Abdel Razek Al-Hashemi, railed against the American persistence in "persecuting" Iraq. Referring to Blix's report to the Security Council, he said: "How can anyone still doubt that the Americans are making these accusations up. I don't think that other countries will now follow the U.S."
Al-Hashemi condemned U.S. Secretary of State Powell's response in the council at the time, saying it showed that Washington is looking for excuses to attack Iraq. "Powell, that son of a bitch, was sitting there and said it was not about inspections but about disarmament. That bastard, how could he say that? To get 1441 he had said it was all about inspections. Of course it's not about either, it's about getting their hands on Iraq and its oil."
While most ordinary Iraqis have a strong sense that war is inevitable, the leadership is still trying to play its cards to put off war. Al-Hashemi is in charge of whipping up solidarity abroad and was deeply involved in bringing large groups of peace activists to Baghdad. Over the weekend the first group of voluntary human shields were deployed at a Baghdad power plant.
The human shields are the most visible among the plethora of peace groups that have pitched their tents in Baghdad. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has warned the Iraqi government that the use of these activists to protect potential targets for bombing will be regarded as a war crime. "Deploying human shields is not a military strategy, it's murder, a violation of the laws of armed conflict and a crime against humanity, and it will be treated as such," Rumsfeld said.
The activists themselves reject that notion and instead accuse the U.S. government of war crimes, should it attack Iraq. "They will be the ones dropping the bombs on us and the other people here," said one British volunteer.
Many of the human shields are particularly ill-informed about the situation in Iraq and the Middle East. One Belgian volunteer said he wanted to help bring "inner peace" to the people of Iraq and to the peace activists.
One South African shield, André Venter, sporting a T-shirt bearing the words "Is there coffee after death?" was better informed. In South Africa opposition to a war is strong and the country has sent experts to Iraq to explain its own post-apartheid disarmament experience, as if the Iraqi reluctance to disarm is just a big misunderstanding. "The difference is that in South Africa we decided on disarmament ourselves," said Venter, "instead of being forced to do it through an invasion and then being told how to arrange our lives afterwards."