Weapons Inspections an End in Themselves? ; UN Inspectors Report That Iraq Is Complying with Their Inquiries but Hasn't Produced Convincing Evidence on Arms

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The US and its critics on the UN Security Council appear to be fundamentally divided on a basic question: whether the continuation of weapons inspections in Iraq is more dangerous than war.

To the French and Germans, the inspectors' presence is arguably as important as any discoveries. With UN teams crawling around the country, Saddam Hussein's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs are now "frozen," according to French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Thus, while Mr. Hussein represents a danger to the world community, it is a controlled danger, according to the Europeans.

To the Bush administration, this return to an inspections status quo is not good enough. US officials profess little faith in the ability of a handful of inspectors serving as a deterrent to WMD development. Implicit in their rhetoric is also the assumption that the most dangerous Iraqi weapon of mass destruction is Hussein himself.

"We cannot rely on inspectors gradually finding [Hussein's WMD] and disarming him," says John Reppert, a retired Army brigadier general who headed the US On-Site Inspections Agency. "The US thinks that doing it quicker and more effectively [via fighting], even though it will cause casualties, is the only way we can have security."

Against this background, the much-anticipated Jan. 27 progress report by the top UN inspectors was something easily interpreted by both sides as supporting their position.

The report was tough - to some observers, unexpectedly tough - on the lack of substantive compliance by Iraq with UN disarmament resolutions.

"Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament that was demanded of it," UN weapons chief Hans Blix said at the beginning of a crucial assessment of 60 days of weapons inspections. Mr. Blix, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), said it was not enough for the Iraqis to "open doors."

Blix noted that Iraq's 12,000-page arms declaration contained little more than old material previously submitted to inspectors. One exception was an Air Force document that indicates that Iraq has failed to account for some 6,000 chemical rockets. "The finding of the rockets show that Iraq needs to make more effort to show that its declaration is currently accurate."

On the nerve agent VX, which Iraq is believed to have weaponized on the eve of the Gulf War, Blix said the Iraqis haven't sufficiently answered questions regarding the fate of its stockpiles.

On biological weapons, Blix said Iraq had failed to produce "convincing evidence" that it unilaterally destroyed its anthrax stockpiles and that there are indications that Iraq could have had larger quantities than it reported to inspectors. …