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November 1, 2002

Sending in a dupe to disarm Saddam


Per Ahlmark

     The U.N. weapons inspection chief and Iraq have agreed on tentative terms for the conduct of weapons inspections, which in theory could begin as early as two weeks from now. But the success of any such deal depends as much on the men who will carry out the inspections as on the details of when, where, and how they are carried out.
     Hans Blix will head the U.N. arms inspectors charged with searching for, finding and destroying Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. I have known Mr. Blix for more than 40 years. In 1960, he was my deputy when I was a leader of the Swedish Liberal Youth organization. Since then I have followed his career closely. He became Sweden's foreign minister for a year and was later a director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria.
     Personally, Mr. Blix is amiable and has a sense of humor; politically he is weak and easily fooled. I can think of few European officials less suitable for a showdown with Saddam. Indeed, it is with utter disbelief that I watch television news about Mr. Blix's negotiations with the Iraqi dictator's henchmen.
     The world has been amply warned about Mr. Blix's weaknesses because he has a track record of compounded failure. When Mr. Blix headed the IAEA before the Persian Gulf war of 1991, he blithely assured the world, after several inspections, that nothing alarming was happening in Iraq. He delivered the clean bill of health that Saddam had hoped for when he began hiding his atomic factories and nuclear ambitions.
     Since then, we have learnt all too unambiguously that Saddam is obsessed with procuring weapons of mass destruction — chemical and biological warheads as well as atomic bombs and the missiles to deliver them.
     Former experts of Iraq's nuclear weapons program, who have fled Baghdad for the West, confirmed this. They told us about determined and costly efforts to obtain doomsday devices. Indeed, it is now clear that Saddam was but a year away from securing his first atomic bomb when the Gulf war broke out.
     After that war, U.N. inspectors found and destroyed huge amounts of chemical and biological warheads as well as the facilities to produce nuclear weapons. Despite his grave failings as IAEA chief before 1991, Mr. Blix once again came to lead U.N. disarmament inspectors, this time in tandem with another Swede, Ambassador Rolf Ekeus.
     Mr. Blix, naive and relatively ignorant about technical details — his field is international law — is easily mislead. Even after the Gulf war, he failed to realize that the Iraqi officials, who were again assuring the U.N. that they were hiding nothing, were but consummate liars. Indeed, Mr. Blix believed that Iraq had no program at all for nuclear arms. David Kay, perhaps the most effective arms inspector, insisted that he did not trust them. But Mr. Blix reproached Mr. Kay for his attitude. You must believe in official information, Mr. Blix implied.
     The turning point came when Mr. Kay initiated inspections of suspect buildings without notifying the Iraqis about his intentions in advance. This new, aggressive inspection strategy had dramatic consequences: Mr. Kay discovered material confirming that Iraq was only 12 to 18 months away from producing a nuclear device.
     This historic discovery ended up in a confrontation at a parking lot in Baghdad. The U.N. cars were surrounded by 200 Iraqi soldiers and a mob, ordered out to the scene by Iraqi officials. For four days and nights the siege continued, as Mr. Kay and his colleagues used satellite telephones to fax crucial documents to the West.
     Mr. Blix had opposed the raid. Fortunately, Mr. Ekeus backed it and supported the inspectors during the siege. I have met a number of experts on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and they often compare the two Swedes: "Ekeus is brilliant," they say, "Blix is terrible."
     When the current U.N. inspection team was being put together in 1999, both Mr. Ekeus and Mr. Blix were among the candidates being considered to head the new group of inspectors. Friends of Iraq in Paris and Moscow consulted Baghdad to see whom Saddam would prefer. France and Russia then suggested Mr. Blix. Surprisingly the Clinton administration accepted that decision.
     Saddam's chemical and biological arms, and his determination to get nuclear weapons, are a threat to the world. The dictator could use these arms himself or make them available to terrorist organizations.
     And the issue of war and peace depends on a man repeatedly duped the Iraqi regime.
     The Bush administration probably understands Mr. Blix's weaknesses. My guess is that the United States will not allow Mr. Blix and the inspectors that he oversees to be deceived by Iraq again. Regardless of how this crisis develops from this point, the United Nations has neglected its duties by asking a wimp to lead the inspectors who are supposed to stand up to the brute of Baghdad.
     
     Per Ahlmark is a former deputy prime minister of Sweden. Copyright Project Syndicate.

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