Cover Story

WINNING THE WAR, LOSING THE DEBATE

In an exclusive WORLD interview, the longest-serving UN weapons inspector for Iraq, ROLF EKEUS, blames himself for caving in to international pressure and letting Saddam off the hook, blames Bill Clinton for making it harder to keep an eye on WMD development, and blames George W. Bush for focusing on WMD "hardware" rather than "software." Yet his toughest words are for those who would second-guess the war. Such critics, he says, trivialize "a major threat to international peace and security"

Issue: "Iraq: The WMD debate," Feb. 21, 2004

In a terse pause to an otherwise feisty nationally televised address, CIA director George Tenet, speaking at Georgetown University on Feb. 5, said when it comes to interpreting intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, "history matters." Rolf Ekeus has walked through the bowels of that history.

As the first to head UN weapons inspections in Iraq, Mr. Ekeus became the longest-running lead official to track and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. When his work began, he did not dream that questions about Saddam's WMD stockpiles would linger more than 12 years later.

As the white-haired dean of European diplomats, Mr. Ekeus in his WORLD interview from his offices in The Hague was surprisingly unequivocal in his support for the Bush/Blair war plan. Yet as a supporter, he nonetheless fears the United States may have botched the postwar weapons search in its quest for a dramatic discovery of "stuff" (WMD hardware) rather than weapons-making capacity (WMD software).

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Also in the interview:

3» He candidly accepted responsibility ("I consider it my fault") for allowing international pressure and political manipulation by Saddam to hinder UN destruction of Iraq's dual-use facilities.

3» He expressed concern over the administration's selection of inspectors (choosing "brawn" over "brain"), and despite his praise for the Bush team's new head inspector, it may be "too late."

3» He tied President Clinton's bombing runs over Iraq to the end of on-the-ground inspectors and reduced monitoring efforts to remote-control exercises.

Starting in 1991, Rolf Ekeus and a team of chemical-weapons experts spent two years destroying what he calls a "huge quantity" of nerve gas and other lethal agents. They built two destruction facilities inside Iraq just to finish them off.

He oversaw a team of biological-weapons experts who uncovered "a large amount of growth media for anthrax, which was unaccounted for."

He sat down in Jordan on a summer evening in 1995 with Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Gen. Hussein Kamal, the country's biggest-name defector. For three hours the general, who was in charge of Iraq's weapons production, described the extent of Saddam's WMD program. He revealed crash-course efforts to develop nuclear weapons, including one to design and manufacture centrifuges disguised as an irrigation project within the Ministry of Agriculture. He described programs to equip long-range missiles with poison aerosols.

With that kind of past, neither Mr. Ekeus nor others from the inspection fraternity doubt that Iraq under Saddam Hussein desired to acquire unconventional weapons sufficient to threaten its neighbors and its enemies. The absence of chemical weapons in Iraq is "puzzling," he admits, but the former weapons chief believes criticism of U.S. and British policy over the war is "a distortion and a trivialization of a major threat to international peace and security."

Mr. Ekeus, a former Swedish ambassador to the United States, took charge of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, which came to be known as UNSCOM, in 1991. Only months before, the fourth-largest army in the world had been defeated in 100 hours of ground warfare known as the Gulf War. In pulling out of Kuwait, Iraq signed on to the UN's terms: economic sanctions until Iraq proved it had dismantled weapons of mass destruction and was no longer a threat to its neighbors.

With few exceptions, the dismantling process and inspections were going nowhere until Mr. Ekeus and two other inspectors interrogated Gen. Kamal in 1995. He confirmed something UNSCOM had come to suspect: that Saddam held few stockpiles of banned weapons.

"What Iraq learned in its war against Iran, where it used chemical weapons in massive scale, was to be wary of chemical weapons-based warfare agents that had been stored. It had great difficulty stabilizing nerve agents. If you cannot stabilize nerve agents, meaning to store them, the poison quality deteriorates. Then it no longer has strategic significance."

Rather than amass large inventories, Mr. Ekeus discovered, Saddam was more interested in quick means to produce them. Gen. Kamal's testimony revealed an active interest in perpetuating Iraq's manufacturing capacity.

Six months after that meeting and the debriefings that followed, Gen. Kamal was shot dead in Baghdad, a portent of the long and treacherous road ahead.

At that point sanctions had prohibited Iraq from selling oil for more than five years-a revenue loss estimated at $100 billion. Mr. Ekeus said he realized then the "enormous value" Saddam placed on his complex weapons program.

At the same time, UNSCOM was under increasing pressure to give Saddam a passing grade. "How many children are you willing to let die while you search for 'items' you 'are convinced still exist in' Iraq?" read the opening sentence of a June 1996 letter sent to Mr. Ekeus by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

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