Ex-inspector: Iraq not pursuing nuclear arms
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(CNN) -- With increasing talk of U.S. military action to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a former U.N. weapons inspector spoke out Sunday against President Bush's position.
Scott Ritter, who is an American, addressed the Iraqi National Assembly on Sunday and said the United States "seems to be on the verge of making a historical mistake." He said the Bush administration has not substantiated its case that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
After addressing the Iraqi representatives, Ritter spoke with CNN's Miles O'Brien from Baghdad, Iraq.
O'BRIEN: You seem very certain that there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein is engaged in an effort to build weapons of mass destruction. How can you be so certain?
RITTER: What I'm very certain of is that the Bush administration has not provided any evidence to substantiate its allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime is currently pursuing weapons of mass destruction programs or is in actual possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Based upon my experience as a weapons inspector from 1991 to 1998, while we had serious concerns about unaccounted aspects of Iraq's weapons program, we did ascertain a 90 [percent] to 95 percent level of disarmament that included all of the production equipment and means of production used by Iraq to produce these weapons.
So if Iraq has weapons today, like President Bush says, clearly they would have had to reconstitute these capabilities since December 1998. And this is something that the Bush administration needs to make a better case for, especially before we talk about going to war.
O'BRIEN: Just to be clear, while you've been there in Iraq, you've had no firsthand looks at any of these suspected sites where weapons of mass destruction might be produced?
RITTER: That's absolutely correct. Look, I'm not here as a weapons inspector. The only people that can make that kind of finding of disarmament are weapons inspectors mandated by the [U.N.] Security Council. Right now, these inspectors are not at work here in Iraq.
And one of the things I made absolutely clear to the Iraqi representatives [Sunday] -- and I will continue to do so with any government officials I have the opportunity to meet with -- is that Iraq must allow the unconditional return of weapons inspectors and grant them unfettered access to sites designated by the weapons inspectors for inspection.
O'BRIEN: When you say that to them -- that it's important to allow these inspections to resume -- what's the reaction?
RITTER: I think the Iraqi government understands that if they do not allow the unconditional return of inspectors with unfettered access, that war is all but inevitable -- that there will be nothing that can stay the hand that President Bush and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair seem prepared to unleash on Iraq.
And so that's why I've proposed that a mechanism be put forward that provides a confidence-building measure for the Iraqi government so they can allow these inspectors to return unconditionally and give them unfettered access.
Let's keep in mind that the reason why inspectors are out of Iraq isn't because Iraq kicked them out, but rather they were ordered out by the United States after the United States manipulated the inspection process to create a confrontation that led to Operation Desert Fox and then used intelligence information gathered by inspectors to target Iraqi government sites, including the security of Saddam Hussein.
So it's going to take awhile to convince Iraqis that they should once again trust inspectors. But frankly, they have no choice.
O'BRIEN: But the situation had become untenable for those inspectors, it's worth reminding our viewers. You're taking that a bit out of context. The inspectors, at that juncture, weren't really able to do their job properly, were they?
RITTER: No, absolutely false. The inspectors were able to do their task of disarming Iraq without any obstruction by Iraq.
Let's keep in mind that from 1994 to 1998, the weapons inspectors carried out ongoing monitoring inspections of the totality of Iraq's industrial infrastructure. And at no time did Iraq obstruct this work.
The obstruction only came when weapons inspectors sought to gain access to sites that Iraq deemed to be sensitive. And many of these sites -- including intelligence facilities, security facilities, Saddam Hussein's palaces -- had nothing whatsoever to do with weapons of mass destruction.
So we've got to put this in its proper perspective. Yes, there were obstructions. But this obstruction had little, if anything, to do with actual disarmament.
O'BRIEN: Let me ask you this though, Mr. Ritter. It seems that sometimes we avoid seeing the forest for the trees here. Is there any doubt in your mind -- taking aside what you've seen firsthand or heard from the Iraqis -- is there any doubt in your mind that Saddam Hussein would love to get hold of nuclear weapons?
RITTER: I think we have to be careful about trying to compare with what Saddam Hussein's regime was trying to do in the past with the current situation today.
Saddam Hussein is a man who's very interested in the continued survival of Saddam Hussein. And I believe he recognizes that any effort by himself or his government to reacquire any aspect of weapons of mass destruction -- let alone nuclear weapons -- would be the equivalent of taking a suicide pill. It would invite the immediate, harsh response of the international community and would result in his ultimate demise.
So, yes, I truly believe that Saddam Hussein today is not seeking to acquire not only a nuclear weapon but weapons of mass destruction of any kind.
O'BRIEN: I guess the concern is though that we're perhaps in an era which invites the necessity of a pre-emptive strike, and that perhaps the only smoking gun evidence we will ever see here in the West of nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, might well be a mushroom cloud. The stakes are pretty high, aren't they? Isn't it time to act differently, perhaps?
RITTER: No, I agree. The stakes are very high. That's why it's imperative that the United States acts in accordance with its obligations under international law. We are a signatory of the United Nations charter, and in doing so we've undertaken to respect international law, especially in regard to issues pertaining to war.
If the United States shreds international law, rips up the United Nations charter and intervenes against Iraq unilaterally, we will be redefining the entire way the world chooses to deal with situations of this sort. What will then stop India and Pakistan from going to war? What will stop China from intervening in Taiwan? There will be no guarantees. There will be no mechanism. We will be unleashing chaos.
This is a bigger fear than any hypothetical concept of an Iraqi mushroom cloud exploding anywhere in the world. This is a reality. An Iraqi nuclear weapon, at this point in time, is sheer speculation.
O'BRIEN: I'm sure you've heard the criticism that you are acting in a disloyal manner toward the United States. How do you respond?
RITTER: I think I made it very clear that I'm acting as a fervent patriot who loves my country. As an American citizen, I have an obligation to speak out when I feel my government is acting in a manner which is inconsistent with the principles of our founding fathers.
We have a Constitution which says we will abide by the rule of law. We are signatories of the United Nations charter. Therefore, we are to adhere ourselves to the United Nations charter. And I see my government drifting decisively away from this.
So I feel I have no other choice, as an American citizen, than to stand up and speak out. It's the most patriotic thing I can do.
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