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Background: The Threat

July 31, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Joseph Biden said he hoped two days of open hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would begin a national dialogue on Iraq. The committee’s goal, he said, was to determine Iraq’s biological, chemical, and nuclear capabilities, the threat they pose, and what the U.S. response to that threat should be.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: One thing is clear. These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s been widely reported for months that the Bush Administration is seriously considering a military strike against Iraq, but Congress for the most part has been left out of those discussions.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: If President Bush decides that large scale offensive military action is necessary against Iraq, I hope that he will follow the lead established by the previous Bush Administration and seek Congressional authorization. The Administration must be assured of the commitment of the American people in pursuing policies and actions in Iraq after focused and vigorous discussion and debate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among the witnesses today was Richard Butler, the former head of the United Nations weapons inspection program in Iraq. The U.N. weapons inspectors left in 1998, charging the Iraqis prevented them from doing their work. Butler told the committee Saddam Hussein has been free to step up Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction ever since.

RICHARD BUTLER, Former Chairman, UNSCOM: Mr. Chairman, members of this committee, Iraq’s stated position is that it has no weapons of mass destruction. As recently as last week, two senior Iraqi officials– the deputy prime minister and the foreign minister– reiterated this claim. It’s more than interesting that in his public statements, Saddam Hussein never claims to be disarmed.

On the contrary, he threatens a degree of destruction of his enemies, which implies his possession of mighty weapons. It is essential to recognize that the claim made by Saddam’s representatives that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction is false. Everyone concerned, from Iraq’s neighbors to the U.N. Security Council to the Secretary General of the U.N.– with whom Iraq is currently negotiating on the issue– everyone simply, Mr. Chairman, is being lied to.

KWAME HOLMAN: Butler said up until the time his inspectors were removed, they had determined Saddam planned an aggressive program to develop chemical and biological weapons, and he suspects that continues today. Butler then turned to Saddam’s nuclear capability.

RICHARD BUTLER: The key question now is: Has Iraq acquired the essential fissionable material, either by enriching indigenous sources or by obtaining it from external sources? And I don’t know the answer. It is possible that intelligence authorities in the West and Russia– and you all know why I mention Russia in particular– may know the answer to that question. But what there is now is evidence that Saddam has reinvigorated his nuclear weapons program in the inspection-free years. And over two years ago, the IAEA estimate was that if he started work again on a nuclear weapon, he could build one in about two years.

KWAME HOLMAN: Dr. Khidir Hamza was Saddam Hussein’s top nuclear engineer before he defected in 1994.

KHIDHIR HAMZA: With more than ten tons of uranium and one ton of slightly enriched uranium– according to German intelligence– in its possession, Iraq has enough to generate the needed bomb-grade uranium for three nuclear weapons by 2005. Iraq is using corporations in India and other countries to import the needed equipment for its programs, then channel them through countries like Malaysia for shipment to Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: Questions then focused on how the United States should respond to the threat. Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst, reminded members of the committee that Iraq remains the strongest military power in the Persian Gulf. He detailed the kind of assistance the United States would need and could expect in order to conduct a military operation against Iraq.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Center for Strategic & International Studies: I think we will have the support of the British government. Most of our NATO allies will, at best, be reluctant and seek, if anything, to delay it, to use the U.N. But we had some of those problems during the gulf war. You are going to need Turkish air basing far more, because the center of power is a lot further north. If you cannot get Saudi airspace, that will be critical. So would Saudi bases, if possible. There were really 23 airfields and air bases at the time of the Gulf War. We used every single one of them to capacity, put Marine Corps aircraft into unimproved strips because there were no areas left, and 11 of those bases were in Saudi Arabia.

If we are going to fight this one, you, at a minimum, are going to need all of the capacity of Qatar, of Bahrain, and Kuwait. You’re going to need to be able to stage through Oman. You probably are going to have to use most of your carrier assets, at least initially, because of a lack of basing, unless you can get Saudi Arabia. So any assessment of relative capability and scenarios is based, determined not so much by what our European allies do, but what we can actually get by way of support in the region.

KWAME HOLMAN: Harder to gauge, said Cordesman, is the kind of assistance the United States could expect to receive from within Iraq.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: It is easy to talk about the unpopularity of the regime and to assert that units are not reliable. People did that throughout the Iran-Iraq war, and they were wrong virtually every time. We did not see mass defections in the Gulf War until Iraqi forces came under intense pressure. The Republican Guard’s units and the heavy divisions were treated in good order. We talk about tyranny, and repression, violence is part of this regime. But so are incentives in bribery. It is impossible to know who will take these bribes and incentives seriously. Saddam has been in power during the entire life of some 80 percent of the Iraqi people. To say that he has had no impact, that he does not have loyalty, that there are factions that will not follow him, is reckless and dangerous. Uprisings can be meaningful in some areas. But uprisings are very unlikely in the core areas of Saddam’s strength– Baghdad, Tikrit, and the cities in the center– and urban warfare is a dangerous and uncertain structure.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators returned to the key question of how to respond to the threat from Saddam, short of going to war.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: Is there any sense or any scenario, which you can conjure up which would cause Saddam Hussein to… and his government, to take a different view towards inspections?

RICHARD BUTLER: Well, Mr. Dodd, my… Senator, my answer, I’m afraid, will be a pessimistic one. It is essential that we have Iraq brought into conformity with the law, which is that it must cooperate with a full scale international effort to, a, take away the weapons that it made in the past and which already exist, and b, institute a system of long term monitoring, a Hamza referred to, for example, to en sure that those weapons will not be constituted in the future. Are they likely to do it? No, they’re not. Does it mean that we should, therefore, now stop trying to get that restored? No. I think we’ve got to go a little further way, if for no other reason than to make clear to the world that we went the full distance to get the law obeyed and arms control restored before taking other measures.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Is it each of your opinion that the policy of containment is now exhausted, and we now must face the reality that it does not work?

KHIDHIR HAMZA: Containment did keep Iraq from accelerating its production, limited its… what is available to it, destroyed most of its weapon depository. But in the end, it’s not the answer, for the simple reason: Iraq restructured its science and technology base around the containment policy. So it created a new international network for purchasing, redistributed its scientists and engineers so that they will not be very visible to air strikes and to possible inspectors if they go in. So in the end, Iraq is working to defeat containment, and in the end, it will achieve its purpose.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Foreign Relations Committee listened to panels of witnesses throughout the day and will resume hearings tomorrow.