At Stake in Iraq: Arms Control's Future UN Inspectors Are Back in Baghdad, but Saddam Still Denies Access to Scores of Sites

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Over the past three decades, much of the world has cooperated in constructing a bulwark of ambitious agreements designed to curb or eliminate the most deadly weapons ever devised by man.

Together, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and other pacts are regarded as building blocks of global stability in the 21st century.

But as the showdown over the United Nations search for Iraq's illegal arms enters its second month, there's growing concern over the world's willingness to restrict the spread of weapons of mass destruction. US and UN officials, as well as independent experts, say the outcome of the Iraq crisis could signal whether the international community will take tough steps to eliminate the threat. Its failure to do so, they say, could exacerbate the danger by encouraging states like Iraq to pursue covert nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, even if they are parties to arms-control treaties. "Iraq is a test case for something far wider," Richard Butler, the top UN inspector, said last weekend on NBC. "Are we going to live in a 21st century in which weapons of mass destruction are around every corner or ... are we going to live a more civilized life?" The deep uncertainty over international cooperation on counter-proliferation grows out of differences among the world's most powerful nations over dealing with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's challenge to UNSCOM, the UN inspection group. Eager to reopen trade deals with Baghdad, France and Russia are seeking to short-circuit UNSCOM to hasten the lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq. Russia's pledge to seek an end to sanctions led to an Oct. 22 resumption of UNSCOM operations after a three-week hiatus triggered by Iraq's expulsion of US experts. French and Russian advocacy on Iraq's behalf comes despite evidence that Saddam retains an arsenal of illegal weapons seven years after UNSCOM began work in the wake of the Gulf War. This cache is believed to include 6,000 gallons of anthrax, a deadly toxin, and ingredients to produce as much as 200 tons of the nerve agent VX, enough to kill everyone on earth. Iraq is also suspected of concealing dozens of Scud medium-range missiles. The US and Britain oppose lifting the sanctions until UNSCOM accounts for the missing materials. The UN, they say, must be allowed into more than 70 installations, including dozens of Saddam's palaces, from which it has been blocked. Iraq is refusing to comply, citing national security and sovereignty issues. …