Document Leaves Way Clear For War

By Ewen MacAskill and Oliver Burkeman (Guardian November 7, 2002)

Adoption by the United Nations security council of the resolution on Iraq, tabled yesterday by the US, will set in motion a detailed timetable that could take the world to war within months.

The US resolution, which Washington wants the security council to vote on tomorrow, sets out tough new powers for UN weapons inspectors to use to hunt down Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, if they exist.

The resolution sets out lots of stringent conditions for Iraq, the breach of which could result in the launching of a US-led war against the country. And, in spite of two months of tortuous negotiation, there are lots of grey areas, lots of ambiguities, lots of scope for confusion.

Opinion is divided in the US, at the UN, in Europe, in the Arab world and within the British government as to whether this resolution will lead to peace, the eventual lifting of sanctions and the return of Iraq to the international fold, or whether it simply offers a menu of excuses for war.

The Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, might decide at any point over the next few months that enough humiliation has been heaped upon him by the inspectors. Or the hawks in Washington might try to engineer a crisis, perhaps by leaking "intelligence" on weapons to the inspectors.

A western diplomat denied yesterday that war was inevitable. He said the resolution was designed to test Iraq's "genuineness" and war or peace depended on that alone.

The resolution will remain open to debate until at least tomorrow when the US is expected to push it to a vote. A UN security council source said France, the main opponent to the resolution, had reached agreement with Washington on the main planks, though there could still be minor changes.

Russia could veto the resolution but that might prove too big a price for Moscow: the end of the good relationship that its president, Vladimir Putin, enjoys with the west.

The key question in the coming weeks is over the warning to Iraq "that it will face serious consequences" if there is a material breach of the resolution. This was the section that generated the most argument between Washington and Paris, and Paris lost.

The French wanted two resolutions: one setting out the terms for the inspectors and a one sanctioning war if Iraq blocked the work of the inspectors. The US would not budge.

If the inspectors report problems with the Iraqis, the matter will go back to the security council only for consideration. The way is now open for a US-led war, with legitimacy conferred by the UN without a further resolution.

Iraq has a week from adoption of the present resolution to accept or reject it but will accept, knowing that rejection will bring war. It will then have 30 days to provide a detailed declaration of any chemical, biological or nuclear-related weapons at its disposal.

Within a fortnight, the UN weapons inspectors, who left Baghdad four years ago, could be back in Iraq, and that is when the problems will begin.

An Iraqi official insisted Baghdad would comply fully with the inspectors rather than risk war. The problem is one of interpretation, especially as there is much deliberate ambiguity in the text. The key ambiguity surrounds what would qualify as an Iraqi obstruction of the inspections process and whose responsibility it would be to make the judgment.

It will be up to Hans Blix, the UN's chief weapons inspector, to decide whether, for example, a locked door to which the key cannot be immediately found would constitute such an obstruction.

Such tiny details could prove crucial. Inspectors with Unmovic's predecessor body, Unscom, voiced suspicions that traffic jams en route to chemical facilities were deliberately arranged by the Iraqis.

Iraq appears to be under the impression that failure by Baghdad to declare all weapons would not amount to a "material breach". An Iraqi official, speaking before the resolution was tabled, insisted that the Iraqis could not be held responsible for every weapon buried under the sand.

The Iraqi take will be that failure of disclosure will have to be accompanied by evidence that Iraq deliberately set out to obstruct the inspectors.

British officials disagreed yesterday, insisting that any significant omission would constitute a "material breach". A British source said: "If it was some clerking error, it will not be a material breach, but any deliberate intention to hide weapons would be." The official said that at the first sign of Iraqis "messing about" the inspection team would return to the security council to lodge a complaint.

There is lots of scope elsewhere for friction. The resolution, as expected, overturns a memorandum signed between President Saddam and the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, that set restrictions on visits by inspectors to the president's eight palaces. The inspectors will now have unfettered rights.

The inspectors will also be able to declare suspect sites as localised "no-fly zones", preventing any flights in or or out.

The inspectors will be able to fly Iraqi witnesses out of the country to give evidence. If there was someone with real information, the Iraqi government's temptation to block his removal would be powerful.

The inspectors are scheduled to report to the security council within 60 days of beginning their work in Iraq. It is an extremely short time-span, given the complexity of the problem.

The difficulty of the inspectors' job is highlighted by the difference of opinion between two former inspectors. Scott Ritter and Richard Butler were doing the same work but reached radically different conclusions.

Mr Ritter claims that of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were destroyed by the time the inspectors left and the country was unlikely to have developed new ones without detection.

Mr Butler has consistently warned of the dangers of Iraq having used the absence of the inspectors to develop weapons.

Mr Ritter claimed last week that the US will try to trigger a war with Iraq by interfering in inspections. "The US will be doing whatever it can to provoke confrontation. There is a big group of people in the US that want war," he said.

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