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U.S. Backs U.N. Effort to Destroy Iraq's Ballistic Missile Program

By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

The White House pledged support Thursday for a stepped-up U.N. effort to destroy Iraq's capability to make ballistic missiles, a move that U.S. and diplomatic officials say could spark a new quarrel with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The U.N. effort, to be launched next week and last through the spring, will seek to eliminate machinery and production lines at four Iraqi factories that inspectors claim were used to make components of the missiles hurled at Saudi Arabia and Israel during last year's Persian Gulf war.

Officials say the effort is authorized by a U.N. cease-fire resolution accepted by Iraq that requires "the destruction, removal or rendering harmless" of the country's ballistic missiles, related parts and repair and production facilities. The equipment was identified by U.N. inspectors during visits last year to military sites.

Iraqi officials have told U.N. inspectors that much of the equipment should not be destroyed because it has other, non-military uses and is vital to the nation's economic recovery. These statements have led to speculation in Washington and U.N. headquarters that Saddam may refuse to comply with the destruction orders.

"There may be an immediate standoff" similar to Iraq's temporary detainment of U.N. inspectors in a Baghdad parking lot last September following the inspectors' seizure of incriminating documents about the country's nuclear program, one U.N. official said. But he added that strong U.S. and allied support for the elimination plan would make a confrontation less likely.

White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft provided the pledge of U.S. support for the destruction plan in a meeting here Thursday with Swedish ambassador Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, according to U.S. officials. Scowcroft said that in the event of any Iraqi effort to obstruct the commission's work, the United States would back a U.N. Security Council resolution of condemnation, the officials said. But it could not be learned whether Scowcroft and Ekeus discussed the possibility of U.S. military support for the destruction efforts.

At least 17 facilities in Iraq have been identified by the commission as sites where the government conducted research, production, testing and repair of ballistic missiles, launchers and rocket fuel. U.N. officials declined to name the sites targeted for demolition, crushing or cutting of equipment, explaining they do not want to give Baghdad advance warning of the specifics. But they said trained U.N. personnel would depart for the Iraqi capital from Bahrain late next week.

The visit marks the opening of a new, politically sensitive phase of t he commission's work, involving more concerted destruction of Iraq's industrial capability to make weapons of mass destruction. This work follows nine months of inspections aimed largely at detecting, cataloging and monitoring Iraqi missile and nuclear technology, chemical weapons and biological agents.

Of the missile arsenal, the commission has supervised destruction of everything Iraq has declared, including 62 missiles, 11 missile decoys, dozens of fixed and mobile launchers, eight missile transporters and 146 missile-storage units, by one official's count. Much of this equipment was purchased from the Soviet Union or Western European nations, although Iraq added improvements, according to commission investigators. Much was destroyed by allied air raids during the war, but certain sites were missed or remained hidden until the inspections began, according to U.N. officials.

The destruction effort is set to begin amid continuing tension with Baghdad over what Western officials believe is a residual stockpile of Iraqi ballistic missiles, and at a time U.S. officials say they are seeking to bring new pressure against Iraq to encourage Saddam's overthrow.

Also fueling the tension is rising resentment among Iraqi citizens about the U.N.-backed embargo of trade with Iraq, which has boosted food prices and created shortages of medicine and spare parts, according to U.N. officials.

On Monday, Bush called for maintaining t he embargo and reiterated that "the Iraqi regime has failed to comply fully with binding" Security Council resolutions and "continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

Bush's charges were based in part on a letter several weeks ago from t he commission to the U.N. secretary general reporting that "there remains substantial uncertainty whether all missiles ... have been declared as required." That claim in turn was based on a U.S. intelligence estimate that the Iraqi government is still hiding several hundred missiles in trucks or warehouses, perhaps in pieces.