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Standoff Gives Saddam Time to Play a Weapons Shell Game

As UN officials meet Iraqis in Baghdad, concern rises in US that the rogue leader is hiding banned weapons.

It has not been easy for United Nations experts charged with ferreting out and destroying Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's secret nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Despite repeated pledges to cooperate with UN teams, Saddam has done his best to conceal the remnants of his pre-Gulf War illegal weapons programs and, possibly, of more-deadly efforts he may have developed since then.

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Over the past six years, UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors have been lied to, barred from sites, besieged in their vehicles for days by Iraqi troops, attacked by government-orchestrated mobs, and had bullets fired over their heads.

But for more than a week, Saddam has not needed such measures. Since he triggered the latest crisis by banning Americans from UNSCOM teams, the inspections were first suspended by the UN and then blocked by Iraqi officials.

As a result, Saddam has won one major victory in his latest standoff with the international community: time in which to hide documents, move equipment, and tamper with monitoring systems.

In the past several days, UN officials say, the Iraqis have shifted industrial equipment with civilian and military applications, including devices used in missile production, out of view of UN cameras. They have also tampered with cameras, including blocking their lenses.

Yesterday, the Iraqis for a fourth day prevented UNSCOM from making inspections or from checking on surveillance cameras. They deny tampering with the cameras and insist they moved equipment to protect it from US air strikes.

UN and United States officials, however, are increasingly concerned that Saddam may have done more to conceal weapons-related materials than UN teams have detected.

"We obviously worry that if we can't do the monitoring and inspections ... then the potential for continued concealment, denial, and deception rises," says one US official.

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UNSCOM has not yet accounted for huge amounts of chemical and biological warfare components believed to be in Iraq. That fact, coupled with Saddam's recent actions, holds grave implications for the international effort to stop Iraq's rebuilding programs, including its deadly germ-warfare capability.

"The commission is unable to verify that dual-capable facilities and equipment in Iraq have not been engaged in the production of weapons of mass destruction or components thereof," UNSCOM chief Richard Butler warned in a letter Wednesday to the UN Security Council.

The inspection halt - as well as a suspension until next week of surveillance flights by US spy planes - puts added pressure on President Clinton.

Russian, Chinese, French, and Arab allies oppose using force to compel Saddam to yield to American inspectors. As a result, Mr. Clinton has agreed to await the outcome of UN-Iraqi talks that began in Baghdad on Wednesday. But he is clearly upset over the maneuvering room Saddam has won. "This is a frustrating policy," he says.

Under terms of the Gulf War cease-fire in 1991, UNSCOM is charged with ensuring that Iraq discloses and destroys its weapons of mass destruction. The US, determined to prevent Saddam from again threatening the free flow of Gulf oil, insists that the Iraqi dictator comply with the agreement before the UN lifts crushing economic sanctions.

In addition to inspections of suspect Iraqi sites, UNSCOM uses remote cameras, air-sampling devices, and other detectors at some 250 facilities where equipment can be used to make either legitimate products or illegal weapons. It also relies on intelligence and aerial-surveillance data provided mainly by the US.

Despite Iraqi interference, UNSCOM has made major strides since 1991, determining that Saddam's secret, pre-Gulf War weapons programs had progressed much further than Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA, had believed. It has also destroyed or neutralized major components of those programs.

But UNSCOM officials say Saddam continues to conceal significant portions of the programs. They base that assessment largely on data Iraq itself provided after Gen. Hussein Kamal Hassan, Saddam's son-in-law and the head of Iraq's secret weapons program, defected to Jordan in August 1995. General Hassan was murdered after later returning to Iraq.

Materials yet unaccounted for include six tonnes of growth medium for biological-warfare agents such as anthrax and botulinum. UNSCOM has also not been able to find tons of chemical-weapons ingredients, believed to include components for the nerve agent VX, only 10 milligrams of which are sufficient to kill.

Unless the remaining components are found and destroyed, they would allow Saddam to rebuild fully fledged biological- and chemical-warfare programs within six months and a nuclear-weapons program within a year, US officials say.

UNSCOM officials say the halt in inspections is eroding their monitoring capability. "The longer we cannot go about our work, the more our concern grows," says Ewen Buchanan, a New York-based UNSCOM official. "If our monitoring ceases to function, that would cause us ... to start the system from afresh."

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