Inspectors Angered by US Claims Over Iraqi Weapons
Published on Friday, December 6, 2002 by the Times/UK
Inspectors Angered by US Claims Over Iraqi Weapons
by Roland Watson in Washington

RELATIONS between Washington and the UN were under severe strain yesterday as the leading weapons inspector in Iraq hit back at US criticism of his team’s work.

Demetrius Perricos, the Greek head of the team searching Iraq for chemical and biological weapons, strongly rejected American attempts to dictate the pace and style of inspections. Frustrated White House officials had marked the end of the first week of the new inspection regime, which has uncovered next to nothing, by calling for more intrusive inspections.

But Mr Perricos retorted: “The people who sent us here are the international community, the United Nations. We’re not serving the US. We’re not serving the UK. We’re not serving any individual nation.”

Breaching protocol, which dictates that UN officials should remain non-political, he also challenged the Bush Administration to share its intelligence if it wanted the inspectors to uncover banned weapons. Referring to the intelligence on Iraq amassed by the US, he said: “What we’re getting and what President Bush may be getting is very different, to put it mildly.”

After a cordial start to the week-old inspection regime, Iraqi officials have begun to resort to the hardline rhetoric that characterized the doomed inspection regime of the 1990s.

Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, denying that Iraq had any banned weapons, said the authorities had distributed “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of guns to Iraqi families to fend off a US-led war. The inspector’s response highlighted the tension on all sides, with the threat of war hanging over the inspectors’ every move. Mr Bush and Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, have also been at odds. Mr Bush said Iraq’s initial reaction to the inspections was “not encouraging” while Mr Annan painted a more optimistic picture.

The White House eased its stance on the inspectors after the criticism yesterday but raised the stakes ahead of this weekend’s critical deadline for Saddam Hussein to show his hand. Despite increasingly heated denials from Baghdad, President Bush has a “solid basis” for asserting that Iraq was pursuing covert weapons programs, Ari Fleischer, Mr Bush’s spokesman, said.

Referring to similar charges leveled by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, Mr Fleischer said: “The President and the Secretary of Defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true.”

The carefully chosen comments were designed to heighten the pressure on Iraq to come clean ahead of this weekend’s deadline and declare its arsenal, while reserving maximum room for maneuver for the US.

But Washington continued to keep everyone — and, most crucially, President Saddam — guessing about how it would react to Baghdad’s dossier if it failed to mention the chemical, biological or nuclear programs cited in classified US intelligence.

One reason for the White House’s inscrutability is that it does not want to tip off Iraq about what it knows and what it does not. But another is the deep divisions in the Bush Administration about how to react. According to the UN resolution, failing to declare all its weapons programs would amount to a “material breach”. Hardliners in the Administration, led by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, and Mr Rumsfeld, are pushing for the US to denounce Iraq immediately as being in breach and start the clock ticking for war.

But Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, favors keeping the emphasis on disarmament, feeding the inspectors US intelligence and giving them time to uncover themselves the weapons that Saddam has failed to declare. It is the best way to keep alive US hopes of a substantial anti-Saddam coalition, Mr Powell argues.

Even administration hawks stopped well short of suggesting that a false declaration by Iraq would immediately trigger war. In Brussels yesterday the US tried to bolster its coalition, offering NATO countries an opportunity to be involved. Mindful of the diplomatic hurt caused when the US failed to take up NATO’s offer of support in Afghanistan, Paul Wolfowitz, Mr Rumsfeld’s deputy, said NATO countries could deploy AWACS surveillance aircraft, minesweepers and Patriot missiles to defend southeastern Turkey, provide overflight rights and refueling options, and contribute to a post-Saddam peace-keeping force.

In Washington, Mr Rumsfeld was poised to announce the call-up of 10,000 more reservists on top of the 50,000 still mobilized since the September 11 attacks.

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd