Newspaper editors and analysts continue to misunderstand this. Headlines, every few days, repeat messages that suggest failure of the inspections to indict Iraq: “U.N. inspectors have found no smoking gun” “Still no proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” “Analysts question whether President Bush has made a sufficient case for war.” Meanwhile, the President acts as if vindication is inevitable. Why does he seem so confident?
So far, the inspectors have visited about 250 sites. They were selected from the obvious list: the former nuclear weapons laboratory at Tuwaitha, now pursuing “non-nuclear research”; the nuclear weapons and design center at Atheer and the uranium separation facility at Qaim, now operating as a fertilizer plant; Iraqi nuclear facilities at Kashat, Qaim, Jesira, Tarmiya, Sharqat, Rashdiya, and Furat. The list also has sites with biological or chemical weapons capability: at Salman, Hakam, Daura, Fudaliyah, Taji, Muthanna, Mohammediyat, and Fallujah III. But I doubt that the inspectors expected to find weapons of mass destruction by now. Saddam knew the list as well as I do; the surprise would have been if he hadn’t sanitized these sites. So why did the inspection teams even bother to visit them?
I assume that the initial inspections have been a series of “set plays”-to make a football analogy. (I hesitate to use this metaphor since war is serious and deadly, but it does illustrate my point.) In football, the set plays are the opening sequence, planned before the game, designed to probe and test, and to set up patterns that can later be broken. The team doesn’t expect a touchdown during this time; that comes later in the game, after the reactions to the set plays have been studied and digested. During their inspections to date, the U.N. inspectors were probing the Iraqis, setting standards for access that the Iraqis will now have to continue to meet. By allowing immediate access to his cleansed sites, Saddam may have committed a tactical error. Any delay, once the “real” sites are investigated, will stand out in sharp contrast.
In addition, the U.N. inspectors have been probing the Iraqi reaction to surprise-for example, by visiting bottled-water plants in the Al-Tajiyyat region. The Iraqis may have made another tactical mistake when they offered no resistance to this unexpected inspection.
Technical methods for inspection include chemical swipes, radioactive monitoring, and satellite imaging. But these have limited value in the search for nuclear and biological facilities, which can be small, compact, and disguised as legitimate factories. In fact, most of the useful intelligence comes from the old-fashioned source: spies, defectors, and disgruntled Iraqis. Their information, in spy-speak, is called “humint”-short for human intelligence. Humint collection has been a major goal of the U.N. inspectors. According to the U.N. resolution, Saddam must allow interviews with any scientist they name. His response has been to tell his scientists to insist on having a representative of his Ba’th party present at such meetings. Meanwhile, Saddam also holds their families hostage in “safe houses”-ostensibly to prevent kidnapping by the U.N. He is desperate to prevent them from revealing the locations of his truly clandestine sites, but he cannot hope to succeed. Fear and hatred can unexpectedly beget courage. The prototypical example was Dr. Khidr Hamzah, the former chief nuclear weapon designer for Saddam who defected in 1995 and has provided much of our best information. All it takes now is an envelope secretly passed to an inspector while the Ba’th chaperone is distracted. Saddam’s growing outrage about these interviews reflects the depth of his fear. He requires zero leakage of the locations of his clandestine facilities, and he is unlikely to achieve that.
The U.S. has other information that it has not yet revealed, either to the United Nations or to the public, presumably including the location of suspected clandestine sites. This is what likely gives President Bush his confidence. Despite demands from pundits, he is wise to hold such information close, while the U.N. gathers additional information. When he finally releases U.S. intelligence, the inspectors will go to the suspect sites, and war will likely follow quickly.
A new and important stage in the confrontation began this week, when the U.N. started using six helicopters, three American and three Russian. These allow swift inspections of remote sites, and they will probably be used in the last pre-war inspection. That may not take place until the U.S. is war-ready. This inspection will be directed at a secret site, perhaps an underground facility, perhaps a remote palace, a location that the inspectors previously ignored. We can anticipate that Saddam will not let them in. His rhetoric will be intense. He will claim that the inspectors were trying to humiliate him, and that he had a sovereign right to keep them out. But shortly afterwards the war will begin, very likely with Security Council approval.
War can still be averted. The most likely way, one that is being encouraged by the United States, is for Saddam to be overthrown by his own people. The Iraqi military knows it cannot win, and does not want to experience the devastation of another U.S.-led attack. Ironically, Saddam may be inadvertently encouraging a coup through his repeated claims that war with the U.S. is inevitable.
There are other scenarios that avert war. If the inspectors are given complete access to every site they suspect, then there will not be war. (Some pundits think President Bush will attack anyway, but I do not.) Or, perhaps Saddam will relent and admit to having weapons of mass destruction-and then disarm. But this doesn’t fit with what I and many others have perceived in Saddam’s character.
I think Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, and that he will not allow the U.N. inspectors to find them. The goal of the inspectors is not to find these weapons, but to be denied access. When that happens, they will have succeeded in their mission. War is next. Vindication will come only afterwards, when the illegal weapons sites are found and destroyed. At least, that is what I hope. I fear that the first compelling proof of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction may come, not after the war but during it-when Saddam demonstrates their existence by using them.