SPENCER MICHELS: Once again, Iraq's top diplomats were at the United Nations today, trying to prove they do not have weapons of mass destruction. What's different about this visit is that Saddam Hussein's government has been named by President Bush as part of an axis of evil, sponsoring terror and manufacturing the most deadly of weapons.
For the first time in three years the Iraqis have raised the possibility of letting some inspectors back into their country.
The Iraqis also want to get rid of international economic sanctions, but Security Council resolutions hold that the sanctions cannot be lifted until weapons inspectors have unfettered access to the country.
Inspections began after Iraq was defeated in the Gulf War in 1991. They were aimed at verifying Hussein's claims that his government neither possessed nor produced biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, or the missiles to deliver them.
But UN inspectors complained that Hussein wouldn't allow them access to alleged weapons sites. In 1998, the last inspectors left Iraq, just ahead of U.S.-British air strikes. Baghdad has barred them from returning ever since.
And sanctions have remained in effect. For years, Iraq has complained the sweeping trade embargo has devastated the economy and claimed the lives of more than 1 million people, including children.
In 1996, an oil-for-food humanitarian program was created by the UN to allow Baghdad to export oil, provided the proceeds are used to buy food, medicine and other civilian goods. But there have been allegations that some of that money has gone into weapons programs and palaces for Saddam Hussein.
And Iraq has evaded UN supervision of the program for several years, and sold smuggled oil through Turkey and Jordan with little done to stop it.
In mid-January, President Bush -- at a meeting with the prime minister of Turkey -- warned Saddam Hussein to let inspectors in or face the consequences.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I expect Saddam Hussein to let inspectors back into the country. We want to know whether he's developing weapons of mass destruction. He claims he's not -- let the world in to see. And if he doesn't, we'll have to deal with that at the appropriate time.
SPENCER MICHELS: Two weeks later, in the State of the Union, the President used much harsher language.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections, then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.
SPENCER MICHELS: The speech prompted worldwide speculation the U.S. is preparing to overthrow Hussein's government either with covert action in support of opposition groups or by an overwhelming military assault. Iraqi officials have denounced President Bush's accusations and said they're ready to fight off any enemy attack.
Secretary of State Colin Powell - appearing at the Capitol this morning said President Bush "has no plans on his desk" to attack Iraq. He repeated the Administration's demands that inspectors be allowed to return.
After the talks ended this afternoon at the UN, Iraq's foreign minister spoke to reporters.
NAJIB SABRI: UN raised the UN concerns and we raised our own concerns and we had, as I said, a positive and constructive exchange of views on these concerns. We shall meet again in the middle of April to continue our dialogue.
SPENCER MICHELS: There is no word as to whether Iraq will accept inspectors.
MARGARET WARNER: What should we make of today's meeting, and what should the US do about Iraq and its suspected weapons program? To debate that, we turn to Khidhir Hamza, former head of Iraq's nuclear weapons program; he defected in 1994 and wrote an autobiography entitled, Saddam's Bomb Maker. Retired ambassador Edward Peck, who served as the US Chief of mission in Iraq in 1977-80; he is now a consultant. Kanan Makiya, director of the Iraq research and documentation center at Harvard University. He's an Iraqi-born British citizen, and has been involved with the Iraqi opposition. And Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served as global issues director on President Carter's national Security Council, and in the global affairs office of the Clinton State Department.
Welcome to you all. Mr. Hamza beginning with you, you worked for Saddam Hussein. What should we make of today's meeting that it took place and that Iraq asked for it?
KHIDHIR HAMZA: Iraq now is desperate. It tries to get from under this threat of regime change by trying to give the appearance of compliance. I don't think Iraq ever intended to fully comply with the inspection. Also a new policy is set forward by this administration that now this time it is war. If you don't remove your weapons of mass destruction, it's no longer just inspections and a few hits here and there. It's a change of regime that obstructs any attempt to remove these weapons. And this looks serious to Iraq enough to try to give the appearance of compliance.
MARGARET WARNER: But you say just the appearance of compliance?
KHIDHIR HAMZA: Oh, yes. The fear is when I talked to US inspectors like the head of the US team -- there was a panel discussion a this a few weeks back and they are all worried that if the president's request to get the inspectors back is accepted by Iraq they might get back in and find nothing because Iraq hid it well its various components of the weapon programs. In this way the US case will be weakened considerably, and some allies including in some Europeans like Germany, France and the Russians also and Chinese especially will take this as an opportunity to try to weaken the US case.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Peck, how do you interpret the fact of today's meeting? Do you think this is a signal that Iraq is ready to let inspectors in or that it's more the way Mr. Hamza sees it?
AMBASSADOR EDWARD PECK: Well, it's difficult to be sure because they're not telling us right up front but I get the very distinct impression that Iraq has been trying for quite a while to open a dialogue at least with the United States which is the principal enemy. And the inspection, one of the things that fascinates me is that just in the early part of the show tonight, we saw that President Bush was announcing that General Zinni is going out to get the Iraqi, pardon me, the Israelis and the Palestinians to talk but we don't talk to the Iraqis.
It seems to me that if Sharon can talk to Arafat and vice versa without embracing each other, that certainly we can open the dialogue with the Iraqis who are so many thousands of miles away. The idea of being "you get out from under the economic sanctions" which have nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and in exchange we get inspectors in. Now you've got an agreement, which is something we've never had with them.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Makiya, how do you see it?
KANAN MAKIYA: I see this as a repeat of the cat-and-mouse game that was going on for the last ten years. I think it's very unfortunate that the United States even opened the door of this inspections, that is, allowed, asked or challenged Iraq, put down the gauntlet, so to speak, on the question of inspections because Iraq will pick it up exactly as Dr. Hamza said. I agree with him fully, as a way of diverting attention from what it sees as a case building up inside the United States to do something very serious about regime change. The issue... the very important thing to realize here is that this regime and weapons of mass destruction are two inseparable entities. They are simply not possible to keep apart, and the whole idea of inspectors is that you can put, you can keep the regime but leave, but somehow through the inspectors get rid of the weapons of mass destruction.
That is a fallacy based upon ignorance of the nature of this regime and the way in which it views these we weapons as bound up with its view of its own national security, something that goes way back to the Iraq-Iran war because it sees these weapons as having essentially saved it in the Iraq-Iran War and probably it even thinks that these weapons were responsible for the previous Bush Administration not seeing the Gulf War through to its bitter conclusion or logical conclusion.
MARGARET WARNER: Jessica Mathews, how then should the Administration, I mean Iraq has made this opening gambit. They're in these talks at the UN. What should the Bush Administration do now?
JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, I think that the last comments points the way to a different policy, and that is that there is one, the US has to recognize is that there is one thing that Saddam Hussein cares about more than nuclear or biological weapons and that is staying in power. He has shown over and over again that he puts that number one. And so the US policy ought to be designed to do two things: To give him no room to play cat-and-mouse anymore, and to focus on the weapons of mass destruction because it is that that is the threat, that is to us a mortal threat and that is an insult to the rest of the world. When we forget that central core, we, (a), lose legitimacy for what it is we're going to do, we (b) lose support for everybody else in the world which we must have and we get confused about having the force to pursue the weapons of mass destruction adequately.
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words you're saying it's important to take care of the weapons than to oust Saddam Hussein you think they can be split?
JESSICA MATHEWS: I think they can be. I disagree with what was just said that they cannot be split. Here are the reasons why: First of all we have not tried a sufficiently strong inspection regime. We have never had an armed inspection regime and we have never had, when we did have briefly sufficient international consensus behind it, the inspection regime was extremely successful. Mind you, I am not debating in any degree at all that Saddam will want to continue to have these weapons. No debate about that. Nobody can question that -- but they can be separated and we have not really tried to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Hamza, again, you worked for this man. You worked inside this whole program. Do you think there's the prospect for really vigorous inspections, regime maybe an armed inspections regime that can separate Saddam Hussein, maybe remaining in power but getting rid of the weapons?
KHIDHIR HAMZA: What you do to assure yourself that Iraq is clean? I mean we look with the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency at the possibility of having monitoring stations. We found that we need something like 200 stations all over Iraq, continuously working to detect effluence and other radioactive materials coming out. It's an impossible task.
JESSICA MATHEWS: It's not.
KHIDHIR HAMZA: This is billions.
JESSICA MATHEWS: It's not.
KHIDHIR HAMZA: Now, other aspects. If he hides them well-- and he's very good at that -- remember, with all the UN, I mean, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other figures, only three out of seven sites were discovered at the Gulf War. The other four sites were not even known. Until 1994 the Iraqi nuclear weapon program was not admitted by Iraq as a full-scale weapon program and it was accepted by the monitoring agencies at the time until Kamal's defection.
MARGARET WARNER: So what's the alternative?
KHIDHIR HAMZA: It's regime. There's no other alternative.
AMBASSADOR EDWARD PECK: I can't buy that. A number of things concern me. The Administration-- and we're the only country in the world interested in doing this. Everybody else is wildly opposed.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean a regime change.
AMBASSADOR EDWARD PECK: Yeah, because the word they use is destabilizing the regime but look at the region you're talking about. Destabilization doesn't necessarily stop at the outskirts of Baghdad. That's the Middle East. You don't want to destabilize that government especially if, and I agree entirely with you, Saddam Hussein is not a threat. It's these weapons. The rest of the world is extremely distressed at the credible humanitarian costs of this embargo, which is up to us really. I mean we have told them that they can never raise the embargo because we'll veto any effort to do it.
JESSICA MATHEWS: I think an important point here is not to judge the capability of inspections of what's been done so far but rather to judge it on the basis of what could be done with an engaged global public opinion, (a), with the effect of 9/11 in everybody's mind, and with a unified great power agreement behind it. That means the full agreement of the Russians, which we have never had so far.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Mr. Makiya in on that. Do you see that prospect as one that should be pursued?
KANAN MAKIYA: No. I think the whole issue of armed inspections is a non-sequitur. How armed is armed? Pistols? Machine guns or tanks to prospect the inspectors -- quite apart from the billions that Dr. Hamza just mentioned to build the monitoring agencies and sites. We have been through this road before. For ten years the United States and the world tried to institute the most thorough inspections regime that the world has ever seen, and it didn't work -- and it didn't work even on its own terms. It took Iraqi defectors increasing numbers of them to tell us what he had and new revelations kept on being uncovered. But that is also the wrong way to think about this. Saddam is a destabilizing force throughout the region. You think by going around this route he and the Arab-Israeli peace process go in inverse relations to one another if you look at the whole ten years. As the fortunes of the ones go up, the fortunes of the other goes down. We have seen that in the last ten years. This regime is a destabilizing influence on the whole region.
MARGARET WARNER: You're saying over and above the weapons.
KANAN MAKIYA: Exactly.
JESSICA MATHEWS: Surely an American attack on Iraq is also going to be a destabilizing effect to region putting it mildly.
KHIDHIR HAMZA: Do you think Iraq is stable now? One-third of Iraq is no longer under Saddam control, which is the North.
AMBASSADOR EDWARD PECK: That's an interesting problem.
KHIDHIR HAMZA: He has control only in major cities in the South. Outside of the cities is no man's land now. Now the huger groups of Iraqis left are against the regime. What is so stable and so good about Iraq right now to keep it going?
AMBASSADOR EDWARD PECK: Pardon me, sir, Dr. Hamza but I can remember very clearly how the United States eagerly, eagerly waited for the departure of a dictator by the name of Marshal Tito so that Yugoslavia could prosper and flourish. You see how well that has worked out. Saddam Hussein is not a nice guy but trying to take him out is going to be terribly destabilizing. The Kurds, the Barzani Kurds, and the Talibani Kurds spill over in the surrounding country - the Shia, the Sunni, the Turkmen, Assyrians, the Azidis, the Sabayans -
JESSICA MATHEWS: And the Iranians. And the effect on Iran even non-proliferation terms could be very severe. We don't know that a successor regime in Iraq would be any less committed to nuclear weapons than this one.
KANAN MAKIYA: We do -- I disagree. I have evidence. I have evidence.
JESSICA MATHEWS: Let me say why which is because the Iraqis may very well feel that the only way they could ever prevent another such attack is by having the weapons. Iranians will probably feel the same way.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Makiya, respond on that point, please.
KANAN MAKIYA: Hundreds and hundreds of Iraqi intellectuals put their name to a document in 1993-94 calling for a Japanese article 9 in a future Iraqi constitution namely the demilitarization of Iraq. This is a country that is fed up with the militarization of its society with 20 years of warfare. It is quite unlike any other regime in the Middle East in that respect -- that there are aggressive nasty regimes throughout the region, that is true. This is a nasty neighborhood, that is true. But also politics is about the exceptionalism of some of them and greater dangers that some of them represent. These Iraqi intellectuals from all walks of life, Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites up and down called for the demilitarization of their own country, called for a Japanese article 9 and then with a fixed limit. I think that's very significant of the kind of move that exists among the Iraqis.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you want--
JESSICA MATHEWS: Only to say that whatever, when we're talking about these policies of what possible routes the US could follow one has to look at the political consequences afterwards. We're seeing in Afghanistan now it's a whole lot harder to leave a stable country after a foreign invasion than maybe even the military steps to get there. And the prospects I think of putting together a stable Iraq post American invasion with a stable Iran next to it, not to mention others, this is an enormous risk. So it has to be balanced against the difficulties.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just go back. Mr. Makiya, I just want to talk to Dr. Hamza. Let's go back to the immediate situation at the UN now. What do you think the Bush administration should do?
KHIDHIR HAMZA: They started on the wrong foot and I agree with Dr. Makiya that they shouldn't have started with this inspector thing -
MARGARET WARNER: But they did.
KHIDHIR HAMZA: -- to begin with -- but now we are in it. The only thing is not to let Iraq get away with trying to have restricted sites like the Presidential palaces and other sites on national security grounds, try to make a condition of lifting sanctions if inspectors go back in and any attempt to obstruct inspectors should be regarded as an act of war by Iraq and try after that to remove the regime.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly.
AMBASSADOR EDWARD PECK: And the way you can do that with full support from the rest of the world would be to lift the economic embargo and do it as a quid pro quo. Here we are General Zinni is out there trying to get Sharon and Arafat to talk. You can do this just separating Saddam Hussein from the weapons and letting the Iraqi people live.
JESSICA MATHEWS: But I think the first step, Margaret, is that the Iraqis have spent the last several years playing off the members of the Security Council against each other and their key friend has been Russia so in order to have a different outcome this time, we have to have a deal with the Russians and that's going to mean certain steps that we can take but sitting down as the Russians have to get something out of this too. When the Russians say to the Iraqis the jig is up, then we have something going.
MARGARET WARNER: And I'm afraid the jig is up on us but thank you all four very much.