Saddam Hussein insists unequivocally that Iraq now has no weapons of mass destruction (WMD). President George W. Bush is equally insistent that it does. To bolster Saddam’s case the Iraqis have swamped UNMOVIC, the U.N. weapons inspection organization, and national analysts with a 12,000 page account of past Iraqi experience in developing and manufacturing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction and delivery missiles. President Bush has followed the opposite tactic. Rather than showering UNMOVIC, with information, he has withheld the intelligence that would allegedly show that Saddam Hussein is lying. In one respect, though, Saddam Hussein and George Bush have taken a similar tack. Each has expressed faint support for the inspection process, while depreciating the reliability of UNMOVIC. Saddam has alleged that UNMOVIC is largely made up of US and Israeli spies, while the US president has expressed doubts on the capacity of UMOVIC to find all of Saddam’s hidden weapons. But neither can avoid the fact that the credibility of their respective claims will be dependent in the eyes of most members of the Security Council and of a good portion of world opinion on the findings of UNMOVIC.

UNSCOM, the first organization established by the Security Council to ferret out Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the predecessor of UNMOVIC, proved that U.N. weapons inspectors can be effective, even in the face of Iraqi intransigence, harassment and deception. It is estimated that UNSCOM and International Atomic Agency inspectors eliminated 90 to 95 percent of Iraq’s WMD capacity as it existed up until 1998. In continuing this work under an even stronger mandate from the Security Council, UNMOVIC will need four things: technically skilled inspectors and analysts; all relevant intelligence information from national sources; advanced sensing technology and access to high altitude imaging; and the support of a united Security Council. It is not clear how quickly Hans Blix can have all of these elements in place. Meanwhile the United States is putting heavy public pressure on Blix to move ahead quickly and aggressively with multiple inspections without providing the intelligence that Blix has requested. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in downplaying the importance of inspections, has asserted that the discovery of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was almost entirely due to information from defectors. This is not true. Defectors, especially Saddam’s son-in-law Hussein Kamal, were an important source of intelligence but the information was often vague, politically slanted and self-serving. To be of value it had to be examined in the mosaic of information that UNSCOM gathered and, most importantly, verified through field inspections that only UNSCOM could accomplish. If a thorough and credible accounting of any existing Iraqi WMD and of its WMD production capacity is desired the U.S. administration must give UNMOVIC the time and support needed to complete its job. Hans Blix needs the trust not just of the United States but also that of all the other members of the Security Council. It will be counterproductive if the United States places so much pressure on him as to make UNMOVIC appear to be a tool of U.S. ambitions.

It is possible that Saddam Hussein will still have hidden away some anthrax spores or the raw materials for chemical weapons even if he eventually gets a clean bill of health from UNMOVIC. Dual-use facilities will certainly remain in existence, albeit tagged by UNMOVIC. Scientists that know the formulas for the deadly weapons will remain in Iraq. But is this sufficient reason to go to war? UNMOVIC will remain in Iraq indefinitely to monitor any activity that might relate to the production of WMD. Under effective monitoring it will not be possible for Saddam to build a new WMD capacity including delivery systems capable of threatening its neighbors and, least of all, the United States.

Saddam Hussein’s main claim to power and fearful respect in the region is his image of possessing WMD and of being the only leader in the Arab World with the possibility of matching Israel’s nuclear arms. Saddam has now stated that he has no WMD or related programs. If this is confirmed by UNMOVIC, the threatening image of Saddam Hussein will be deflated. He will remain only the defeated leader of a fractured country probably fearful of revolt from elements in Iraq who would like to see Iraq on a less self-destructive course and who could well become more active in the more relaxed circumstances of peace. This would be a considerable victory for George W. Bush to claim without undertaking a war that is bound to have a heavy cost in human lives, national unity and economic and political stability in the Middle East.

James S. Sutterlin is a distinguished fellow in U.N. Studies at Yale.