The one, sturdy, missing word

Diana West

9/30/2002 12:00:00 AM - Diana West
Unfortunate typo in that letter to the United Nations, wasn't it? You know the letter: the one from Iraq about how "pleased" the ol' fulcrum of the Evil Axis was to open the country to roving teams of U.N. weapons inspectors "without conditions." Too bad letter-writer and minister of foreign affairs Naji Sabri dropped one word from the text. A corrected copy, obviously, should have read that Sabri was pleased to inform the world and other interested parties that his dictator (a.k.a. "the Government of the Republic of Iraq") has decided "to allow the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq without workable conditions." That one, sturdy word would have made all the difference, recalling the frustrations of past inspections and guaranteeing the futility of future ones. Even in its absence, though, it's hard to imagine who, besides the Russo-Franco-Arab bloc and Peter Jennings, would allow themselves to be conned into believing a dictator as repressive, secretive and murder-minded as Saddam Hussein would allow anyone, let alone arms experts, to inspect his country "without conditions." Nonetheless, "Without Conditions" -- and without irony -- has been the headline of the week. Not that there haven't been valiant efforts to dispel the confusion. Headdresses off to Ali Muhsen Hamid, the London ambassador of the Arab League -- the very group that helped get the Iraqi offer onto the Security Council table in the first place -- for suggesting that Iraqi civilian sites were already off limits to U.N. inspectors. "We support anywhere, any military site" for inspections, Hamid explained to the London Evening Standard this week, "but not, as some people have suggested, for inspections against hospitals, against schools." Strange how this little bombshell from a group in on brokering the Iraqi deal was muffled by most of the media. Of course, letting Hamid pop off in the American press might have too abruptly awakened the world from its inspection fantasy -- which was nice while it lasted. But even The New York Times is now gently breaking the news, attributed to administration officials, that Iraqi officials have already stipulated that "some sites would be off limits." So much for the bucolic thought of the United Nation's 63 weapons experts (from 27 countries) hitting Iraq's highways and byways without a condition in the world, knapsacks stuffed with radiation-detection equipment. Of course, Iraq's no-strings-not position only stands to reason. If you were a brutal dictator with dreams of genocide, and all the nasty toxins you needed to wage biological warfare, say, were being manufactured or secreted or whatever in "hospitals" across the Fertile Crescent, would you throw open the doors to weapons experts who could end it all in a scathing report? Better to keep the eggheads busy inspecting dummy "military" installations. And so it goes. You don't have to be a rocket scientist, or even an arms inspector, to figure this one out. Everyone -- France, even -- knows the Iraqi offer "without conditions" will soon prove bogus; the question is, when? The more important question is: Do we have time to wait? Unless the United States and Great Britain can persuade Security Council appeasers to sign off on a new U.N. resolution with a pressing timetable for Iraqi compliance and a trigger for military action for noncompliance, a threadbare curtain will rise once again on the long, drawn-out inspections charade we've all seen before. So far, there are no signs of a quick performance. A meeting between U.N. inspection chief Hans Blix and Iraqi officials this week resulted only in the decision to meet again -- next month. Assuming they agree then on inspection terms ("without conditions," no doubt), inspectors should arrive in Iraq by the end of October, although simply moving in, according to the British newspaper the Independent, is a "process likely to take two months." Without a speedy, new U.N. resolution, inspectors won't have to report back to the Security Council for 60 more days, at which point they would have six months just to reach "preliminary conclusions" -- sometime in August 2003. So, when diplomats tell The New York Times that "Iraq's gesture to receive the weapons inspectors could slow the pace of events even more than Washington has intended," they aren't kidding. But can we afford just to chuckle and wait? While the world was transfixed by the chimera of unfettered access to Iraqi laboratories this week, the London Telegraph was reporting on signs "that Saddam may be embarking on the opposite course of action." These include not only a surge in illicit arms trafficking with former Soviet states, the paper wrote, but also indications that Iraq is bargaining with North Korea over stocks of plutonium. With such material, British nuclear experts believe Iraq could create a nuclear weapon "within months." Surely, that's nothing worth waiting for.