September 30, 2002 12:00 PM

Scott Ritter knows what’s coming—he’s going to get slapped around again. But as the former Marine sits in a Washington, D.C., TV studio, preparing to have his patriotism questioned on yet another political talk show, breaking news flashes on a nearby monitor: Iraq has agreed to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back inside the country. It is precisely the turn of events that Ritter has spent four years pursuing. “I feel great,” an exultant Ritter says later. “I may have helped to stop a war and save thousands of lives.”

Just what will come of Iraq’s Sept. 16 offer remains to be seen. What is clear is that Ritter, 41, has become the most visible American critic of U.S. war plans against Iraq—so outspoken that some say he’s a traitor. Ritter’s calls for arms inspection over invasion and his harsh criticism of President Bush would be controversial anyway, but there is a baffling twist: In his seven years as a U.N. arms inspector in Iraq after the Gulf War, Ritter sounded the loudest alarm about the imminent danger posed by Saddam Hussein.

Those views have changed. On Sept. 8, Ritter became the first American to address the Iraqi National Assembly—a session in which he said U.S. policy toward Iraq is based on “a rhetoric of fear and ignorance.” The speech led critics to wonder if Ritter is off his rocker—or worse. “I don’t know what accounts for his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality,” says Dick Spertzel, 69, an ex-U.N. inspector who worked with him. “But in my book, aiding and abetting the enemy is treason.”

“Anyone who calls me a traitor can go to hell,” responds Ritter. “I’ve done the most patriotic thing you could do.” That, says a White House official, is debatable. “He’s a private citizen who is speaking his conscience, I’m sure,” the official told PEOPLE. “But he is not necessarily in possession of the latest information on Saddam Hussein.”

Ritter counters that the public is getting speculation, not facts. “Is Iraq a terrorist threat to the U.S.? Unlikely,” he says. “Could they be in the future? Possibly, but we can’t just assume they will be.” In any case, Ritter, a Republican who voted for Bush, has already satisfied the only critics that matter to him: his parents. His father, Bill, 66, a retired Air Force major and Vietnam veteran, and his mother, Patricia, 68, a former military nurse, “had a hard time comprehending” his new position on Iraq, he says. But in the spring of 2001, he rushed to his parents’ home in Hawaii after his father was diagnosed with a tumor that required brain surgery. While there, he gave a stirring speech at a chapel that swayed his folks. “Scott is a straight shooter,” says Bill Ritter, who is now recovered. “He believes what he is doing is right.”

Raised on military bases in Hawaii, Germany and Turkey, Ritter joined the Marines in 1981 and later served as an arms inspector in the Soviet Union. There he befriended Marina Khatiashvili, a Russian translator. After his six-year marriage to his college sweetheart fell apart, Ritter married Marina in 1991. The couple now live with their 9-year-old twins (and Marina’s father, Bidzina, 71) in a four-bedroom home in Delmar, N.Y., near Albany, where Ritter plays lots of golf and serves as a volunteer fireman. “Scott is not hotheaded,” insists Marina, 37, an administrative assistant, “but no one would call him a diplomat.”

That was obvious during the Gulf War, when Ritter, then an intelligence officer, boldly claimed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf exaggerated the success of an air strike. After leaving the Marines he aggressively rooted out weapons in Iraq, which accused him of spying for Israel and the CIA. (Ritter has admitted to sharing information with both.) Considered a renegade by some U.N. officials, he resigned in 1998 and now earns a modest fee giving speeches about his time in Iraq.

While Ritter feels vindicated by Iraq’s offer to readmit inspectors, skeptics still aren’t convinced he knows what he’s doing. “You need to wait for the fine print,” says Dick Spertzel. “This doesn’t mean Iraq is clean.” Ritter, not surprisingly, won’t be fading away anytime soon. “To sit back and do nothing is unpatriotic,” he says. “I feel like I am waging peace.”

Alex Tresniowski

Diane Herbst in Delmar and Melody Simmons in Washington, D.C.

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