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The U.N. search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has turned up no conclusive evidence that it is developing or possessing these deadly arms. But the inspectors have also reported to the U.N. Security Council that Baghdad has given them only limited cooperation during the past two months and that there are still many gaps to be filled in its weapons declaration. The message is that more time is needed to complete the inspections.

Security Council members are divided on how to deal with the reports, which were submitted on Monday by the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). France, Russia and China, among others, say exhaustive inspections should be conducted even if they take a long time. But the United States and Britain, in particular, oppose long inspections, saying it is already clear that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction. They want the Security Council to sanction military action by declaring Baghdad to be “in material breach” of U.N. resolutions.

In reality, though, the inspection process looks set to continue for some time — perhaps another half a month or so. Germany, which will chair the Security Council next month, has proposed that new inspection reports be submitted on Feb. 24. Britain, among others, has supported the proposal. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan has also requested that the inspections be continued, saying an appropriate amount of time is needed to finish the process.

The question is how the U.S. will respond. Reports indicate that it is willing to go along with a few more weeks of inspections largely on military grounds: U.S. forces will not be fully prepared for war until late February or early March. Military analysts say major troop deployments around Iraq will be completed by the end of February.

It is problematic, however, that an inspection period should be set primarily from a military point of view. As long as suspicions of Iraqi noncompliance remain, inspectors ought to be given as much time as they need to resolve all questions. If war is inevitable, it should be approved by the Security Council only as a last resort — that is, only if the Security Council determines that there is no choice but to disarm Iraq by force.

In the meantime, every effort must be made to seek a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis. Military intervention is fraught with risks. A desperate Iraq could set fire to oil fields, possibly including those in Saudi Arabia, with dire consequences for the world economy. Heavy collateral damage — countless women and children wounded or killed during attacks — could not be ruled out, either. Military experts predict that U.S. high-tech weapons would bring the war quickly to an end and that civilian casualties would be minimized. They could be wrong.

There is another case to be made for giving the U.N. inspectors more time: a relative lack of technical skill on the part of UNMOVIC inspectors. The commission now has about 100 inspectors in Iraq. All of them are U.N. employees, not specialists, and many of them are said to be only beginning to develop a knack for conducting full-scale checks.

Mr. Hans Blix, the head of UNMOVIC, says, among other things, that there are indications Iraq has weaponized the nerve-gas agent VX, that inspectors have found a laboratory quantity of a chemical substance that is a precursor of mustard gas, and that there is strong evidence Iraq still possesses a large amount of anthrax. But so far Baghdad has not fully cooperated, nor has it agreed to the questioning of Iraqi scientists and engineers. The report from IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei says questions remain concerning Iraq’s nuclear arms program, although evidence of its revival has yet to be found.

In short, there is as yet no conclusive evidence of a “material breach” by Iraq. If this were a criminal case, the judge would have to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt. But Iraq is not a first-time suspect; it has repeatedly deceived U.N. inspectors since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. If Baghdad stands by its claims that it has no weapons of mass destruction, it must do everything it can to dispel any remaining doubts held by the inspectors.

Saying that time is running out, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration is preparing to attack Iraq. But if Washington has convincing evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is refusing to comply, then it should supply that intelligence to both UNMOVIC and IAEA. Military action, even if necessary, should be avoided until the Security Council reaches its own conclusion based on full and final reports from the inspectors.

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