A new British government dossier on Iraq's weapons program has aroused debate about how much of a threat is posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Weapons experts are worried, while anti-war activists are preparing to demonstrate.
The British report on Iraq's weapons capability is being widely analyzed for both its military and political implications.
The matter is especially important for Britons, since they expect their armed forces would participate in any U.S.-led military attack on Iraq.
The key findings in the new report are that Iraq continues to stockpile chemical and biological weapons, and could deploy them with just 45 minutes notice. The report also claims Iraq has gone to Africa to try to acquire uranium for a nuclear bomb.
Iraq says the report if full of baseless lies and it says U.N. weapons inspectors can return without any restrictions to discredit the findings.
Among those with a keen interest in the British dossier is Wyn Bowen, who served as a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq until the inspection program was shut down in 1998 amid allegations of Iraqi interference.
Mr. Bowen says the report lays out what he calls "a solid case" that over the past four years, Iraq has continued its aspirations to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Bowen says if U.N. inspectors return to Iraq, they will have trouble uncovering some of the weapons sites detailed in the report. "Some of the stuff that's been revealed in here will be under total Iraqi concealment. And that's the problem when U.N. inspectors go in, is that they are never given full access to the sites they want to go to. The sites remain secret. So that's a big issue. Saddam Hussein says he's going to allow the inspectors in unconditionally. I personally don't think he'll actually do that," Mr. Bowen said.
The British report has also fired up a political debate over what to do about Iraq and it's weapons. Some British politicians oppose any British military support if its primary aim is to carry out President Bush's goal of what he calls "regime change" in Iraq.
Charles Clarke is chairman of Britain's ruling Labor Party and a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Tony Blair. He says regime change in Iraq is likely, but to emphasize it will only undermine international support to confront Saddam Hussein over his reported arms buildup.
"I believe the principle priority is the removal of the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which Iraq has. Now does that necessarily mean regime change? I would say that the answer is probably yes. But I wouldn't say that it's certainly yes. I think it's probably yes. And I think that is why we have to focus on the U.N. position of putting inspectors in. Of analyzing what is going on, and then making a judgment about the best way to get the weapons of mass destruction out of Iraq," Mr. Clarke said.
The issue is being followed closely in Britain's Muslim community, where there is opposition to the prospect of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Imran Waheed represents the British branch of the Islamic Liberation Party, which has been outlawed in several Muslim countries, including Iraq. Some Arab governments say the party is linked to terrorism, though Mr. Waheed denies that. He says Muslims would like to see Saddam Hussein go, but they oppose the idea of the United States deposing him through war.
"Muslims on the whole believe that there needs to be a regime change in Iraq. We want to see the political destiny being in the hands of the Muslims. We want to see the establishment of an Islamic state with an elected ruler who is accountable. We want to see the back of this tyrant. Hundreds of our members have perished in his prisons over the last few decades," Mr. Waheed said. With the possibility of war in Iraq looming, British anti-war activists are preparing to take to the streets.
Around 50 British Muslim organizations, leftist parties and anti-war groups are planning a demonstration on Saturday entitled the "Don't Attack Iraq" rally. Organizers say they will march across central London to Hyde Park in what they hope will be the biggest peace rally in Europe in many years.