The Man Who May Determine Whether the U.S. Attacks Iraq

By Rose Brady

Hans Blix has one of the world's toughest jobs. The 74-year-old Swede is executive chairman of the awkwardly named U.N. Monitoring, Verification & Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC)--the outfit in charge of finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If the Security Council sends him and a team of 80 inspectors back into Iraq--as seems likely to happen, as early as late November--Blix could play a critical role in determining whether the U.S. goes to war against Saddam Hussein. "That puts a lot of pressure on Hans Blix and on the inspectors," says Richard O. Spertzel, a microbiologist who led a U.N. biological-weapons inspection team in 1995-98.

The return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq is widely seen as Saddam's last chance to prevent a military attack on his country. On Oct. 21, President George W. Bush declared he was going to rely on diplomacy "one more time" to disarm the Iraqi strongman. A senior Administration official says that the U.S. wants the inspectors to test whether or not Saddam has made "a strategic shift"--a serious decision to agree to the dismantling of programs for producing biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as long-range ballistic missiles, rather than face an attack. The Administration's assumption is that Saddam will resist U.N. demands for "immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted" access to suspected weapons sites. If Blix reports such resistance to the U.N., the U.S. could consider that a sufficient cause for launching a war.

The fear is growing among hawks in Washington that the inspection process, instead of aiding the U.S. cause, will thwart the Administration's plans for toppling Saddam. "The inspections are a trap. They are highly unlikely to get [Iraqi] disarmament, as the doves want, or provide a pretext for war, as the hawks want," says Kenneth M. Pollack, an Iraq expert at Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. For starters, Bush has yet to win the diplomatic battle over the inspectors' mandate, which will be set out in a new Security Council resolution. China, France, and Russia are resisting U.S. proposals for a tough resolution warning Saddam of "severe consequences" if he fails to comply.

But even if the Security Council approves the U.S.-sponsored resolution, the Administration risks losing momentum vital to a swift execution of the war. A key reason is timing. If the U.S. wants to launch a military operation against Iraq, it has about a six-month window, until next April, before it becomes too hot in Iraq for soldiers wearing protective suits against chemical and biological weapons to fight.

The clock will be ticking as soon as the resolution passes. Iraq would have seven days to accept it and 30 days to submit a report disclosing its programs for developing weapons of mass destruction. Only then would inspectors go in. To drag out the process, says one former inspector, "Iraq no doubt will offer temporary cooperation." If the inspectors find nothing in the 105-day deadline the U.N. is considering giving Blix to report back, the effect could be to delegitimize the Bush Administration's argument for attacking Iraq. U.S. plans to launch a war in December or January would also be stymied.

To avoid this quagmire, the Administration is hoping that Blix, who headed the International Atomic Energy Agency for 16 years, will lead what U.S. officials call "aggressive" inspections. Blix has said little about how his team will tackle its job. But in a recent lecture to inspectors training in Vienna, he declared: "I am sure the [Security] Council will not tolerate any cat-and-mouse game, and it will expect [us] to report any such play immediately." Saddam Hussein's fate--and American war plans--could well depend on how Blix handles that challenge.

With Stan Crock in Washington

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