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More inspectors for Iraq?

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The United Nations is training a new team of weapons inspectors to enter Iraq and resume what historically has been a frustrating and fruitless attempt to dismantle Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Rest assured, the dictator won't allow them to cross his border. He has too many friends now on the Security Council to be cowed by any U.N. threats. And even if he did allow it, U.N. leadership has agreed to so many concessions as to make inspections meaningless.

The larger questions, then, are whether the Clinton administration is prepared to press this issue, with an election only months away, and whether voters in the United States are prepared to make Iraq an election issue.

In the nine years since the gulf war, Saddam has managed to turn the nearly universal condemnation of his invasion of Kuwait and his atrocities against his own citizens into feelings of sympathy toward him and anger toward the United States and Britain — the only two nations who seem to remember what all this is about.

Today, it is fashionable to believe the Iraqi people are suffering because of economic sanctions, even as Saddam builds lavish palaces for himself. His friends include many in the United States (a protest was staged recently in front of the White House) and elsewhere. Venezuela's new president, Hugo Chavez, earlier this month became the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the war. Indonesia's president has said he will be next.

Meanwhile, voices of reason — such as former U.N. chief weapons inspectors Rolf Ekeus and Richard Butler — sound lonely as they warn that Saddam is building a formidable arsenal that once again could threaten peace in the region and the world.

President Clinton has shown himself willing to launch repeated military strikes again Iraq whenever confrontations reach the boiling point. Indeed, U.S. and British jets continue almost daily skirmishes against Iraqi planes over the no-fly zones. This virtually forgotten conflict rages with little notice. But the Clinton administration's overall policy on Iraq remains confusing and unfocused. The United States has done little to support groups in opposition to Saddam or to identify any meaningful way to bring an end to Iraqi threats.

The U.N. inspection team should not be taken seriously. Saddam has in recent years diluted the inspection process to the point where it would be almost impossible to find weapons of mass destruction. For example, the United Nations has agreed not to look inside his presidential palaces or in other sensitive places.

The only correct response from the United States is to insist on thorough and meaningful inspections, even with the full knowledge that such a thing is virtually impossible. Al Gore and George W. Bush, meanwhile, ought to be made to articulate exactly what their plans are to deal effectively with this menace of the Middle East.