By Walter Pincus and Colum LynchWashington Post
April 15, 2002
In an unusual move, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz earlier this year asked the CIA to investigate the performance of Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, chairman of the new United Nations team that was formed to carry out inspections of Iraq's weapons programs.
Wolfowitz's request, involving Blix's leadership of the International Atomic Energy Agency, illuminates the behind-the- scenes skirmishing in the Bush administration over the prospect of renewed U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq.
The government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is negotiating with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on the return of arms inspectors, although Iraq asked Friday for a postponement of talks scheduled for next week. Iraq's U.N. ambassador said Baghdad did not want to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Hussein has given no indication about whether he will agree to new inspections. But senior Pentagon civilians such as Wolfowitz and their allies elsewhere in the administration fear that a go-ahead by the Iraqi leader could delay and possibly fatally undermine their overall goal to launch a military campaign against Iraq.
The inspection issue has become "a surrogate for a debate about whether we go after Saddam," said Richard N. Perle, an adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as chairman of the Defense Policy Board.
Officials gave contradictory accounts of Wolfowitz's reaction to the CIA report, which the agency returned in late January with the conclusion that Blix had conducted inspections of Iraq's declared nuclear power plants "fully within the parameters he could operate" as chief of the Vienna-based agency between 1981 and 1997.
A former State Department official familiar with the report said Wolfowitz "hit the ceiling" because it failed to provide sufficient ammunition to undermine Blix and, by association, the new U.N. weapons inspection program.
But an administration official said Wolfowitz "did not angrily respond" when he read the report because he ultimately concluded that the CIA had given only a "lukewarm assessment." The official said the CIA played down U.S. criticism of Blix in 1997 for closing the energy agency's books on Iraq after an earlier U.N. inspection program discovered Baghdad had an ongoing weapons development program.
Whatever the outcome, the request for a CIA investigation underscored the degree of concern by Wolfowitz and his civilian colleagues in the Pentagon that new inspections -- or protracted negotiations over them -- could torpedo their plans for military action to remove Hussein from power. "The hawks' nightmare is that inspectors will be admitted, will not be terribly vigorous and not find anything," said a former U.S. official. "Economic sanctions would be eased, and the U.S. will be unable to act."
A former member of the previous U.N. inspection team said the Wolfowitz group is "afraid Saddam will draw us in to a diplomatic minuet." "While we will have disputes, they will be solved at the last minute and the closer it comes to the 2004 elections the more difficult it will be to take the military route," the former official said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his associates at the State Department, who have been more cautious about a military campaign against Iraq, take a different view. They "see the inspection issue as a play that buys time to enlarge a coalition for an eventual move against Saddam," according to a former White House foreign policy specialist.
State Department officials also argue that Hussein will inevitably create conditions for the failure of the U.N. inspections, by setting down unacceptable terms or thwarting the inspectors inside Iraq so they have to withdraw.
Blix's inspection organization -- the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission -- has inherited the mandate from the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, or UNSCOM. UNSCOM was established after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to eradicate all of Iraq's proscribed weapons before U.N. sanctions against Baghdad could be lifted. It was disbanded eight years later after the inspectors were withdrawn.
In the event Iraq agrees to allow inspectors back, Blix and his associates have been establishing the framework for a new inspections program.
In its resolution establishing the new commission, the U.N. Security Council offered to suspend sanctions on Iraq if it cooperates with the inspectors. "The expression of full compliance is not used in the resolution," noted Rolf Ekeus, the former executive chairman of UNSCOM. "It states there shall be cooperation in all respects."
Determining the level of cooperation required will be done by Blix based on a list of "key remaining disarmament tasks," according to the resolution. Among those tasks will be seeking to determine whether Iraq is continuing to develop the VX nerve agent, whether it has continued its medium- and long-range missile program, and searching for documents that could provide insight into Iraq's efforts to develop chemical and biological warheads.
Even if cooperation by Iraq led to suspending some sanctions, Baghdad would still be subject to U.N. monitoring of its weapons programs. Sanctions would not be formally lifted until it persuaded the Security Council, where the United States has veto power, that it had fully complied with its obligation to abandon its prohibited weapons programs.
In interviews, Blix said he will not use any of the most controversial methods, including eavesdropping, that UNSCOM employed to thwart Iraqi efforts to hide its weapons. His inspectors have all received "cultural sensitivity" courses to avoid offending people, he said, but he insisted that he will give Iraq no "discounts." "We do not see as our mandate to humiliate, harass or provoke," Blix said.
The Bush administration is seeking to persuade Blix to scrap arrangements established by UNSCOM to govern inspections of sensitive sites. Ekeus, and his successor, Richard Butler, agreed to a set of procedures to govern inspection of sensitive sites that Iraq maintained were essential to its national security.
A senior U.S. official said he does not believe Blix intends to allow himself to "be jerked around" by the Iraqis but that his inspection procedures are not yet "ready for prime time."
"Our basic position it that we will follow the practices of UNSCOM where we think they are purposeful and do not have negative consequences," Blix said. "We feel free to modify them if we do not think they are useful or are problematic."
But Blix said he is obliged to honor a 1998 agreement between Annan and Iraq. It envisions a series of time-consuming procedures that would likely delay U.N. arms inspectors for about a week before they could gain access to more than 1,000 buildings contained in eight presidential sites. The procedures require that the inspectors provide Iraq with prior notification of an inspection, fly in a team of inspectors and senior diplomats and then hold a meeting with the foreign ministry.
Blix said that if Iraq cooperates, he is confident that he could issue a report that would trigger a suspension of sanctions within a year after arriving in Baghdad.
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