Washington and Dr. Mohammed ElBaradi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, are at loggerheads again. US rancor dates from the chief nuclear inspector’s handling of the issue of Iraq’s unconventional weapons in the months leading up to the Iraq war. He publicly maintained at the UN Security Council and at every other opportunity that Saddam Hussein had been running no nuclear weapons program since the 1980s. His posture was adopted as the battle cry of the camp opposed to the American invasion of Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report that the White House, after tirelessly gathering information, believes it has come up with enough evidence to show that some of ElBaradei’s assertions were misleading if not downright false – for example, when he contradicted the claim by American and Middle East intelligence experts that Saddam’s weapons plants were adapting tubes for use in uranium enrichment centrifuges.
As we have reported before, the Bush administration is determined to stay silent on the critical question of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction until such moment as exposure best suits the president’s interests, possibly at some point in his election campaign.
Washington has another sharp bone to pick with the Egyptian nuclear watchdog over Iran’s nuclear program – and its uranium enrichment projects in particular. After paying a number of trips to Iran, ElBaradei came away declaring Washington had “as usual” exaggerated the dangers posed by the Iranian nuclear program, a problem whose resolution was possible by calm negotiation.
A furious White House refrained from public response. However, intelligence services with reason to watch Iran closely belie the judgments of ElBaradei and the Europeans. Far from halting uranium enrichment, the Iranians have reneged on their pledge to the Vienna agency and actually stepped up manufacture six weeks ago.
The boiling point reached by Washington’s relations with ElBaradei in Libya owes nothing to the climate. The IAEA chief hopped over to Tripoli eight days after Qaddafi’s surprise announcement and inspected four previously inaccessible nuclear sites. He immediately issued his usual clean bill of health, although the Libyans kept him out of its main nuclear facilities at Al Kufra in the south and other locations where the US military experts were operating. “Libya is not close to producing nuclear weapons,” he declared on December 29, adding for good measure that the antiquated equipment he was shown was still “in boxes”.
Again, the US administration kept its peace, although this time, unlike in Iraq or Iran, it made sure that in Libya American specialists would be present in the country and on site well ahead of ElBaradei’s inspectors.
This is the point at which the Iraqi and Libyan WMD issues have come together to bring Washington’s relations with the IAEA director to crisis point.
Last weekend, US undersecretary of state for non-proliferation John Bolton went to Vienna to bid once again for a working arrangement with ElBaradei. He was confronted with a demand from the IAEA director to allow multinational UN teams to take charge of dismantling Libya’s nuclear weapons – which he turned down flat. The next act of the drama was played out at UN headquarters in New York, where UN secretary general Kofi Annan spurned a request from Paul Bremer, the US civil administrator in Baghdad, for the United Nations to return to Baghdad and take a role in Iraq’s transition to sovereignty and the organization of elections.
US sources close to these interchanges between the US and the UN quoted Annan as responding to Bremer’s request: “If we cannot cooperate in Tripoli, we cannot do so in Baghdad.” Annan is determined to achieve long-term cooperation between the White House and UN headquarters on his terms. But in Libya, Bush has more than one good reason for wanting the the world body to butt out.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence experts, Libya is a “treasure trove” of intelligence data of which Washington and London want first pick. The country is chock full of WMD equipment and materials sold by many countries, companies and even private individuals across the globe in over two decades. For the first time, the Americans and British can get their hands on a gold mine on this scale. And the Libyans have been extremely helpful. Intelligence chief Mussa Kusa has offered to hand over some of the original documentation. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts, never before have the United States and Britain had access to so much precise and damning evidence of which countries and commercial enterprises are building and hawking prohibited weapons systems and instruments.
“These discoveries will provide the Bush administration with a powerful weapon for its war against terrorism,” one insider said. “If Annan and ElBaradei had known who the culprits were, they might have been a bit more careful about refusing to cooperate with the United States in Iraq and Libya – even to a limited extent.”
In the light of these developments, a line was inserted in the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday, January 20: “Had we failed to act, the dictator’s weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day.”
That was a message to Annan and ElBaradei that the Iraqi nuclear issue is still very much alive for Washington, which believes that data coming to light in Libya may very well illuminate the true state of Saddam’s prohibited weapons arsenal before the United States embarked on war.
This dispute indicates that more than one pitfall and road mine lies ahead of the Bush master-plan for revamping a strategic corner of the world.