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Scott Ritter is a former U.N. arms inspector and author of ''Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem -- Once and for All.'' He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Oct. 3.

NATHAN GARDELS: Iraq has agreed in Vienna with Hans Blix, the chief U.N. arms inspector, to a new round of ''unfettered'' kinspections -- except for the presidential palace sites, as the Bush administration demands.

Under a 1998 agreement with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, these palace inspections must be announced ahead of time and inspectors must be accompanied by diplomats.

Can there be effective inspections within that constraint?

SCOTT RITTER: Absolutely. If I were running the new inspections, I would go in and do a baseline of data and samples at the palaces right up front. Then, I'd step back and turn on the overhead satellites and photograph the sites all the time.

If there are any suspicious movements, I'd go right back in and take new samples. If there are any differences, they can be readily detected. The forensic capabilities of the U.N. inspections teams are so good they can detect any shift from the baseline.

For years, we avoided the palaces under U.N. chief inspector Rolf Ekeus, from 1991-1997 -- because we felt trying to get in there, with no reasonable cause, was an unnecessary assault on the dignity and sovereignty of Iraq.

We never thought these ostentatious palaces were sites for hiding documents or production of mass-destruction weapons. We never, ever, had any intelligence pointing to that. Without viable intelligence, there is no cause for calling for an inspection.

This issue of inspections of presidential palaces is a product of American politics. In 1998, the Clinton administration wanted to stick it in Saddam's face. They demanded ''any time, anywhere'' inspections of palaces because they knew the Iraqis would resist. They were looking for any excuse to stick it to the Iraqis, so they said, ''We need access to these sites.''

But the inspectors never asked for such access. We had no reason to go there. But (Clinton's Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright and (National Security Advisor) ''Sandy'' Berger made it an issue, so we had to go there. The Iraqis, predictably, said no.

Kofi Annan then came in and negotiated a deal where the Iraqis designated eight presidential sites and the conditions under which they could be inspected: The inspectors would show up, declare the intention to inspect, and diplomats would be brought in and escort the inspectors through the site.

Once inside the inspectors could do anything. There were no restrictions. We could look at Saddam's toilet. We could go everywhere. We could take core samples. We could take water samples. We could swab the walls for traces of biological or chemical agents and assure ourselves that nothing was happening.

The arrangement Kofi Annan made with the Iraqis still stands. And effective inspections can take place within its bounds.

GARDELS: When assessing a threat that may require preemptive military action, the key questions are capability and intent. What capability do you believe Saddam has today? What evidence is there he would allow Al Qaeda terrorists to have access to what weapons he may have?

RITTER: Saddam is one of the most brutal dictators in the world. We should oppose him. But military might should be used only to defend America if it is at risk. And it is not at risk today from Saddam Hussein. This is just not true.

I know Iraq deceived the world and tried to hide its weapons. But the U.N. inspectors there for seven years were very good. As Rolf Ekeus agrees, 95 percent of Saddam's capability in terms of weapons of mass destruction was dismantled by 1998 under the inspections regime. Saddam was fundamentally disarmed.

Yes, there is 5 percent unaccounted for. And the U.N. Security Council calls for 100 percent disarmament. So we need to resume inspections.

Of course, the potential is there for Saddam to reconstitute his weapons, as I said back in 1998. But I'm an intelligence officer who worked on the ground for many years. I know my job. Having taken Iraq down as close to zero as you can get, there are capabilities out there that would allow us, even without inspectors on the ground, to detect trace activity if something was happening. Mass destruction weapons take science and technology and effort to build, and this is detectable. Yet where is the trace evidence?

If the Bush administration has certain knowledge of new weapons production, they are obligated to tell Americans what they know if they want us to go to war. But the fact is they can't. They have no facts, only speculative rhetoric. I wouldn't die for that, and neither should any other American.

What about his intent? Saddam is a bad guy who has attacked his neighbors and killed his subjects. But is he an anti-American terrorist? Will he give mass-destruction weapons to Al Qaeda?

There is a law on the books in Iraq since 1995 that stipulates the death penalty for anyone proselytizing for Wahhabism -- the fundamentalist Saudi creed in which Osama bin Laden was raised.
So the idea of Iraq suddenly becoming politically aligned with Osama bin Laden, who issued a fatwa calling Saddam Hussein an apostate who needs to be killed, is ludicrous. If Osama obtained mass-destruction weapons, one of his first targets would be Iraq.

On the two counts of capability and intentions, this coming war with Iraq is baseless.

GARDELS: If the issue is not about disarming Iraq's weapons capability, what is it about in your view?

RITTER: If this current crisis were about eliminating whatever remnants of mass-destruction weapons Saddam might have, then we should be rushing inspectors in by the hundreds to scour Iraq and bring this issue to closure. Iraq has agreed now to let them in. If Iraq obstructs the work of inspectors, then we'd have a solid case for military action.

But that is not what it is about. It is about something much more frightening: the transformation of the United States into an imperial power. This is about the implementation of a neo-conservative strategy that has been in the works for decades, but which now manifests itself in the National Security Strategy presented by the Bush administration to the U.S. Congress in September.

I've been worried about this strategy for some years now. I know the people who wrote this document, such as (Undersecretary of Defense) Paul Wolfowitz, and know their thinking. What they want is the unilateral application of American military and economic power to ensure American dominance of the globe for the foreseeable future.

Iraq is the case study for the implementation of this policy. War with Iraq is all but inevitable. This year, probably in December, it will begin. American soldiers will be forced to do things we thought Americans would never do in the name of their country -- slaughter civilians on the order of tens of thousands. We are going to fight in the cities of Iraq. We will withdraw, and then we'll level cities.

The American people, still reeling from the shock of 9/11, are cowed into submission. They have been struck by the politics of fear and ignorance callously played by the Bush administration.
This is a dangerous time that will go down in history, I believe, as a defining moment. Will America take the path of military adventurism? Or will it respect its promise as a nation that believes in democracy and the rule of law, not empire?

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/3/02)