Once again, faced with the prospect of an attack on his country led by the United States with United Nations backing, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is offering to play a game of high-stakes hide and seek with UN weapons inspectors.
The job of the UN inspectors - finding any missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, along with facilities to manufacture these weapons - won't be easy.
Weeks or months could easily pass as the UN haggles with Iraqi officials over the meaning of the Iraqi foreign minister's letter to the UN this week accepting "unconditional" weapons inspections - which he said must still "respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Iraq."
Arrangements will need to be made for the inspectors' offices, communications, security, housing, and for the operation of helicopters, surveillance planes and planes to guard the surveillance craft. Iraq can be expected to argue over details every step of the way.
Once inspectors arrive in Iraq, they will be hosted by a regime that has repeatedly tried to thwart the efforts of UN inspections since the United Nations first ordered the elimination of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs after the nation's defeat in the Gulf War in 1991. The inspectors withdrew entirely from Iraq in 1998, and Hussein has refused to let them back in, giving his regime four years to find better hiding places for his weapons.
Since the UN does not have the satellite and electronic intercept capabilities for gathering intelligence, it would need to rely on the assistance of national governments to guide it to the right places to look for suspicious activities in Iraq. During previous inspections of Iraq, this type of intelligence assistance proved crucial.
But nations may be reluctant to provide intelligence information for fear of compromising their sources and methods. Before 1998, critical information on the activity of the weapons inspectors was leaked to the Iraqi government by UN personnel who were undercover Iraqi agents and by inspectors from governments friendly toward Iraq.
In 1998, inspectors installed a fairly elaborate system of video cameras and other equipment that monitored different sites around Iraq. In a country the size of Iraq, this monitory infrastructure proved invaluable. But within a year of the departure of UN inspectors, the Iraqis tampered with the monitoring equipment. New weapons inspectors would need to assess how much of this monitoring infrastructure remains in place and assess how long it will take to reconstruct it.
Understanding what the Iraqis have done in the last four years when inspectors were not around is critical. For example, a large amount of material used to cultivate the ingredients for biological weapons was imported by Iraq in the 1990s, but was never fully accounted for. And even before the departure of inspectors, the Iraqis had accumulated enough equipment and material to produce new biological weapons without obtaining anything more from abroad.
Iraq also may have placed chemical and biological weapons production laboratories in mobile trailers that can easily be moved around the country. During the Gulf War, United States and coalition forces experienced enormous difficulty in finding Iraq's mobile Scud missile launchers. Finding mobile weapons laboratories could be even harder.
To make new inspections more effective than previous inspections, inspectors should be able to interview Iraqi scientists without Saddam Hussein's agents present. Interviewing a large number of scientists already known to UN inspectors may reveal inconsistencies in the stories of key scientists. These inconsistencies may provide clues to hidden weapons activities.
Another useful approach would be to offer Iraqi scientists UN protection abroad - though not necessarily urging them to defect - in exchange for telling what they know about weapons development in their country in the last few years.
The international community needs to keep its expectations for weapons inspections realistic. Inspectors will not be able to achieve high confidence that they have found everything that may be hidden.
Given how committed Saddam Hussein has been to possess and wield weapons of mass destruction, it is highly unlikely that he will stop playing hide and seek and give up these weapons programs.
John V. Parachini is a policy analyst and an expert on weapons proliferation at RAND Corp.
This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on September 19, 2002.