Less Diplomacy, Faster Reaction in Each Iraq Crisis UN Report Cited Obstruction of Weapons Inspections, Prompting a Swift Response from Washington

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To seasoned Iraq watchers, the lightning-quick buildup to a new crisis between Baghdad and the United Nations was only a matter of time.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein blinked first during a similar standoff last month over UN weapons inspectors, averting American- British airstrikes by a matter of minutes. But Iraq also promised then to provide "unconditional and unrestricted" access. Washington made clear that the slightest violation would be met with force, and without warning. (See story about estimates on potential casualties, page 2.)

The stage was set this time by a crucial report by Richard Butler, the UN's chief weapons inspector, who on Tuesday told the Security Council that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "has not kept to that commitment. Indeed, far from allowing unconditional and unrestricted access, the report does detail new restrictions that he has invented." Several key inspections had been blocked, Mr. Butler said, concluding that "no progress was ... made in either the fields of disarmament or in accounting for its prohibited weapons programs." This latest crisis has erupted unlike any of the others that have marked the long-standing conflict between the United States and Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. So far this buildup has been conducted with unprecedented speed. Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and a US-led military alliance forced a withdrawal. But as part of the cease-fire terms, Iraq agreed to disarm itself of all weapons of mass destruction, and to allow the UN to verify the destruction of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and the missiles to deliver them. Sanctions and an oil embargo were also imposed. Iraq's efforts to conceal the full extent of its programs have caused periodic crises that have caused Washington to force compliance with threats of force. In late 1997, access to sensitive "presidential sites" was denied. Early this year, Baghdad expelled American weapons inspectors who they branded "spies." And in February a lengthy US military buildup was halted at the 11th hour by the personal intervention of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In August, Iraq again curtailed inspections, and by Oct. 31 ended all cooperation. That crisis came to head on Nov. 14, when Iraq backed down just moments before American missiles were to be launched. Iraq's weapons-making capability Western intelligence agencies believe that Iraq still harbors the capability to make and field weapons of mass destruction. But analysts are torn about the long-term effect of a military strike, which they say would almost certainly mean an end to any prospect of future weapons monitoring in Iraq. This time, weapons inspectors were prevented from visiting three "sensitive" sites, Butler reported, including the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and a military base run by an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen al-Khalq. Only one of 12 requested weapons- related documents had been turned over. Butler says that one site had been cleared of relevant materials, and that another "had been prepared to avoid any disclosure of relevant materials and the {UN} team assessed Iraq had expected their arrival. …