In August 2002, the Iraqi government delivered yet another refusal to allow United Nations weapons inspectors back into the country. A week earlier, Iraq had sent an invitation to the chief U.N. weapons inspector to come to Baghdad to review the 1991-1998 inspections, Iraq rescinded its offer, calling the U.S. belief that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction a lie.
The recent refusal is just one highlight in the troubled history of U.N. attempts to verify that Iraq has destroyed its WMD. The 1991 ceasefire agreement that ended the Gulf War included Iraq's agreement to eliminate its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and missiles with a range over 150 kilometers. Set forth in U.N. security resolution 687, the agreement tied the lifting of U.N. sanctions to the destruction of Iraq's WMD arsenal.
In the early 1990s, inspectors met with relative success. The United Nations Special Commission on Iraq [UNSCOM] reported in 1992 that Iraq's ballistic missiles had been destroyed.
Over the next few years, however, UNSCOM inspectors met with growing resistance from the Iraqi government. UNSCOM reported that Iraq had offered false documents about their arsenal, destroyed fewer weapons than they claimed and hid weapons at "presidential sites" that were off-limits to inspectors.
In 1995, Iraq's former Director of Military Industrial Organization, Hussein Kamel who is also Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected with his family to Jordan and confirmed Iraq's development of a biological weapons program.
The Iraqi government was forced to admit it had built biological weapons, acknowledging the pursuit of a biological program that led to the deployment of actual weapons. They admitted producing 183 biological weapons and having the wherewithal to produce many more. The Iraqis then released three reports between 1995 and 1997, claiming that all biological weapons had been destroyed.
U.N. weapons inspectors denied that these reports were complete and were unable to confirm the weapons' destruction. In 1998, the already hindered inspections faced another challenge when Iraq accused Scott Ritter, a former U.S. military intelligence officer and one of the lead U.N. weapons inspectors at the time, of spying for Israel and the U.S.
In October 1998, Iraq officially ended cooperation with UNSCOM, and many inspectors decided to leave. In late December, all remaining U.N. inspectors were called out of the country and hours after the last inspectors left, the U.S. and U.K. launched the bombing campaign "Desert Fox" that targeted many of the sites inspectors had been barred from entering.
In 1999, the U.N. formed the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission [UNMOVIC] to replace UNSCOM in the hope of removing any obstacle created by the spying accusations. Unlike the UNSCOM inspectors, members of UNMOVIC are not on any individual country's payroll.
Former UNSCOM inspectors differ on the threat posed by Iraq's arsenal. Ritter has repeatedly argued that Iraq has not posed a significant threat since 1995. Other former inspectors Richard Butler and Charles Duelfer express greater concern. Duelfer told a Senate panel in August that "the current leadership in Baghdad will eventually achieve a nuclear weapon in addition to their current inventories of weapons of mass destruction."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has warned that inspections may be useless since Iraq has had four years to build up its WMD and reports from Iraqi defectors suggest that laboratories are hidden underground.
The issue of weapons inspections is a key matter in the debate over a U.S. strike on Iraq. The Bush administration has repeatedly called for a regime change in Iraq, but the international debate has focused more on the re-introduction of inspectors into Iraq to assess and eliminate the threat posed by the Saddam regime.
-- By Elisabeth Bauman, Online NewsHour