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EDITIONS
 Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 12:33 GMT
UN arms inspector report: Will it bring war or peace?

  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here for transcript.


    Baghdad may still possess weapons of mass destruction, and has yet to accept the need to disarm, says the top UN inspector.

    Hans Blix was sharply critical of the Baghdad government in his keenly-awaited report to the Security Council on Monday.

    Mr Blix told the 15-member Council that Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance of the disarmament which was demanded of it.

    His report is an assessment of two months of weapons inspections in Iraq, but not - it was stressed - a conclusion on whether Baghdad has weapons of mass destruction.

    Former weapons inspector Chris Cobb Smith answered your questions in a LIVE interactive forum.


    Transcript:


    Paul Adams:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online interactive forum. I'm Paul Adams. The UN's Chief Weapons Inspector has given his verdict on Iraqi compliance with the UN's weapons inspectors. In a briefing to the UN Security Council, Hans Blix said Iraq has been co-operating with his team over access to sites but is still not being completely open about its weapons capability. Mr Blix said that while Baghdad had been open about access, cooperation in other areas had often been "withheld or given grudgingly".

    So where does that report leave us? Well, joining me to answer your many questions on the Blix report is the former weapons inspector, Chris Cobb Smith.

    Chris, thanks very much for joining us. We've heard the report literally in the last hour or so. A lot of e-mails were received before Hans Blix spoke at the UN and I'm sure a lot of others coming in as we speak.

    Let's start with one of the questions that many people have been asking from Jonathan Stevenson, Cambridge: Do you think that inspectors should be given more time to disarm Iraq?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    How long is a bit of string? How long do they actually need? If you're expecting them to visit every single facility and every single military base and every single plant that's been associated with weapons production, it's going to take years.

    But the point is, it is the inspectors here are the ones that are being active - they are the only ones being proactive. None of their questions are being adequately answered by the Iraqis and as came out from the Iraqi representative to the United Nations today, he is claiming full cooperation. Well cooperation goes far beyond just giving them access to wherever they want to go.


    Paul Adams:

    Do you think this process now has become less about actually disarming Iraq and more about Iraqi compliance? In other words if Iraq is seen to be complying grudgingly, as we're told, then the process could be called off long before any question of Iraq being disarmed.


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    That's right. If they were fully compliant, they'd be answering all these many unanswered questions - questions specifically about the significant amount of growth media and other items which are still unaccounted for.


    Paul Adams:

    What did you make of Blix's statement? It was very, very detailed. What are the highlights as far as you're concerned? We'd been hearing beforehand that this was not going to be black or white. Do you think it was more black than perhaps we'd expected?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    I think it was more black than expected. He did acknowledge some cooperation. He acknowledged their support in setting up a field office in Mosul and he did acknowledge a certain degree of cooperation in access. But then there was also a significant list of all the items as we've just discussed - all the items that are still missing. There were also a few black marks against other general Iraqi behaviour, such as them, what seemed to be orchestrated, demonstrations outside the UN headquarters. Also more general things about the attitude towards the inspections, such as when they were off-duty and that sort of thing.


    Paul Adams:

    One of the things that crops up quite a bit is the autonomy of the UN inspectors themselves. Two questions here which I'll put together.

    Andre Luiz da Matta, The Netherlands: How much autonomy do the UN inspectors have to release a fair report?

    Medad, Kampala, Uganda: I would like to know whether the UN inspectors work to please the US or if they are really objective?

    You've been there, you've done the job. Did you feel that you were doing America's work or the UN's work?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    No most certainly we were doing the UN's work and the reports were totally objective, certainly from the point of view of the inspection teams on the ground. But they are merely responding to lists of targets passed down to them from the headquarters of the inspection regime in New York. Now maybe it is an issue of where that definitive target list comes from - whether that is manipulated or not by national agencies - that's a question that may be considered.


    Paul Adams:

    Did you think at the time that the Iraqis you were working with were prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt? Did they regard you as impartial, international civil servants or were they sceptical and doubtful from the very beginning of who you were working for?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    No, I think they were very sceptical and I think that was borne out by the fact that some of the targets we were ordered to inspect were military facilities and then of course many of them were presidential facilities. So they did get upset and excited by the fact that we wanted to go and look at those establishments and they could not understand the need for us to go there.


    Paul Adams:

    It leads on to another theme that crops up quite bit and that is whether or not you were engaged in espionage. Chad Martel, York asks: Mr Cobb-Smith, I have read a lot of conflicting reports about the collapse of the last round of weapons inspections which led to President Clinton ordering air-strikes against Iraq. Many journalists seem to think it was Iraqi obstruction, but there was evidence of American spying. Could you clarify the situation as to how the inspections broke down?

    Those allegations that you were engaged in espionage. Did the Iraqis have something to go on there?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    I think really here we need to define espionage. If you are expecting these inspectors to merely carry out their duties with a map and a clipboard and a pen, then they're never going to achieve their aim. There were activities undertaken by some of the UN inspectors which were delving much deeper into - let's say the concealment mechanism in Iraq and there were certain activities which were undertaken which, as I said, went a bit further than just wandering around with a clipboard. But those activities were still under the mandate of the United Nations and the product of those activities went to the United Nations to enable them to better analyse what may be concealed within Iraq.


    Paul Adams:

    And without that assistance, as you say, the process probably couldn't proceed very effectively at all. Stuart, Exeter asks: I don't understand why the US and UK are holding back information that would lead to the inspectors finding evidence of WMD? Surely their job would be more effective if they had all the information?

    Why do you think there does seem to have been a bit of reluctance on the part of western intelligence agencies or are they telling the inspectors a lot more than we think they are?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    There's several answers to this. Obviously this information that's provided by national intelligence agencies is enormously sensitive. The first aspect of this of course is if you just hand it out it may well compromise the source and sometimes that source can be individuals and may well put their lives at risk.

    The other point to be considered is the information itself is obviously hugely valuable and hugely sensitive. That information just cannot be handed over willy-nilly, if you like, en masse to the inspection team - it's the mechanics of it. It's important to have someone on that inspection team who can receive that information and then transpose it into an operation. So perhaps you'd need to drip feed the information a bit at a time so that it can be actually optimised. You certainly don't want to just hand it all over, say in a big pile of papers or in a file and say, here's all our secret information about what's going on in Iraq, there we are - it's vital, it's important, it's incredibly sensitive, now get on with it.


    Paul Adams:

    Do you expect that that information flow to the inspectors will continue in the coming weeks or do you think we might see what some people have described as the Cuba missile crises moment, when the Americans walk into the Security Council with a bunch of photos, slap them down on the table and say, there is the evidence and now let's finish this job and effectively go to war?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    I think that will firstly backfire on the process if they go into the Security Council like that - that may well happen. But that's got to go through UNMOVIC itself and to the inspection team and the inspection teams have got to have a chance to actually utilise any vital information like that and get a chance to do their job and unravel anything on the ground. But I'll reiterate the fact that it has got to be done in a timely fashion and the operation where that information is utilised has got to be very, very carefully planned so it's not wasted.


    Paul Adams:

    As I said, there are e-mails coming in all the time. This one just in is from James in New Zealand: Why do we still need a war when the weapons inspectors can do the job if left to get on with the job?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    Well, if they're just left to get on with it - how long is it going to take? They could be there for months, if not years and they're going to be given the run-around exactly as we were in 90s.

    I did nearly three years in Iraq and it was a very long three years at times. There was blatant obstruction and there was a lot more subtle hindrance, if you like, and non-cooperation with many of our missions which just meant that many of our missions went on for weeks and weeks and we were getting nowhere. We were being blocked, we were being obstructed with very obvious deception - we just weren't getting anywhere and we most certainly were not getting any definitive answers to any of our questions.


    Paul Adams:

    A lot of talk about smoking guns. Vig, UK asks: What sort of evidence would you as an inspector consider to be a "smoking gun"?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    That is very difficult. There are many people who will consider the chemical capable warheads found last week to be a smoking gun because quite obviously those should have been handed over a very long time ago and is the view that that was just insight a credible one, especially as since they've come up with another four - how many more are there out there? We know for a fact that there were several hundred thousand of those specific type of weapons imported over the years from the time prior to the Iran/Iraq war.

    So an actual smoking gun - I don't know. Perhaps actually some of the physical chemical or biological agents themselves, if those were found in a form where they could be recognised - yes, that would most certainly be a smoking gun.


    Paul Adams:

    Now you and your colleagues left back in 1998 - a long gap ensured - four years before inspectors went back in. Two questions here. The first from Robert Hossack, London: Given the amount of time Iraq has "enjoyed" before the inspectors were allowed back in to Iraq, could Iraq in this time have hidden any weapons in places the inspectors are unlikely to be able to find? Could such weapons stores be mobile enough to ensure they are always one step ahead of the inspectors?

    Izaak Livnay, New York City, USA: What if in the last decade, Saddam Hussein has relocated all of his WMD research and facilities underground? We know Iraq had bunkers.

    There are lot of inspectors there but this stuff can be very hard to find.


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    It can be incredibly hard to find. I'm slightly sceptical about the mobile items and moving things around since the inspectors last left. One thing we're quite sure about that the whole country is under intense surveillance - we've got the U2 plane, we've got the satellites and maybe various other forms of intelligence gathering. So I think it would have been unwise to start moving items around too much because it would have been at that stage that they'd be identified as being moved around. But I've got no doubt there are specific items concealed in various locations throughout the country - I wouldn't be surprised at all.


    Paul Adams:

    Arthur Wyatt, London: Do you think that there is any point to the activities of the weapons inspectors, as it seems that the US is determined to invade anyway?

    If you were an inspector right now in Iraq going about your business, would you be thinking this is all a bit of a waste of time because it's all going to be sorted out by a war anyway?


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    No, I don't think so. I think they've most certainly got a job to do and I think they'll be very focused on that job. It's a very interesting job, it's a fascinating environment.


    Paul Adams:

    It's hugely frustrating too.


    Chris Cobb Smith:

    It can be very, very frustrating - yes. Again, I don't know how policies, I don't how operations have changed since I was last there. But they've got a much stronger resolution behind them now so they should be that much more confident they will be allowed to get on and do their job.


    Paul Adams:

    Chris, that's all we've got time for. Many thanks to our guest Chris Cobb Smith, for his experiences as a former weapons inspector and thank you also to all of you for your many emails. From me, Paul Adams, goodbye.


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