Integrity on line in U.S. hunt for arms

Case for Iraq war was built on alleged bioweapons

But little evidence discovered

Search shifts to records of Hussein's government

Postwar Iraq

April 27, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Five weeks after they stormed into Iraq to "rapidly disable" Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons programs, U.S. investigators have found nothing to disable and are now transforming the search into a slow and deliberate process that officials say will draw on thousands of specialists and could stretch into next year.

Having exhausted many of their best leads with few known results, investigators plan to burrow into Iraq's financial records and pursue procurement trails, hoping to reveal Hussein's quest for banned weapons, if not the weapons themselves. Other teams will pursue new contacts with Iraqi scientists and government officials, who have not offered the flood of assistance that U.S. intelligence officials envisioned.

What began as a sophisticated commando-style operation, using mobile laboratories and fast-strike inspection teams, is being supplanted by a more traditional and methodical information-gathering campaign, Pentagon sources say -- one mindful that the reputation of the United States' intelligence community, and perhaps of the president, is at stake.

President Bush and other top officials, who still say they expect to uncover chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, have begun to lay the groundwork for something less, arguing that mere evidence of those weapons substantiates the United States' grounds for war.

But the United States went to war saying that Iraq possessed enough chemical agents to load 16,000 rockets and that it was hiding dozens of illegal long-range missiles that could deliver chemical or biological payloads to Israel and beyond. Given the fundamental role that Hussein's alleged stockpile played in the Bush administration's building the case for war, finding anything short of actual weapons will cloud the nation's diplomatic stature for decades to come, some analysts say.

"The evidence they had going in has, so far, not proven to be very useful," said Corey Hinderstein, assistant director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research organization. "Now they're going to have to get creative. It's not just about the threat of weapons at this point. It's about the credibility of American intelligence and the justification for going to war."

The United States' intelligence community was feeling bruised even before the war began. Some evidence of Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, which Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell used to bolster international support for war, was discredited, and officials scarcely mention the nuclear issue today. Claims that Iraq sought to import uranium from Africa -- which Bush mentioned in his State of the Union address in January -- were based on forged documents that one United Nations official called "laughable."

But Pentagon sources say evidence of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons is based on numerous sources, including people with intimate knowledge of the weapons. One Pentagon source characterized the evidence as "more than we needed."

Couched statements

Most of the Bush administration's public comments about Iraq's alleged weapons spoke of an arsenal that might have been assembled, not necessarily one that was assembled. And most evidence of that potential stockpile came from U.N. weapons inspectors in reports compiled since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

According to those reports, Iraq has not accounted for about 550 artillery shells loaded with mustard agent, 400 bombs loaded with anthrax and 6,500 chemical bombs. Iraq also reportedly had enough biological material to produce 25,000 liters of anthrax and 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin.

"We have evidence these weapons existed," Powell told the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 6. "What we don't have is evidence from Iraq that they have been destroyed or where they are. That is what we are still waiting for."

But administration officials also charged that Iraq's transgressions extended beyond a lack of accountability and that it possessed, and was prepared to use, a stockpile of banned weapons. For those allegations, they refer to U.S. intelligence agencies, along with reports from allied governments.

Powell said Iraq had a stockpile of between 100 tons and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent, enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets, and he called that estimate "conservative." He also said Hussein had a hidden supply of several dozen Scud ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a chemical or biological payload, that have a range long enough to reach Israel and Kuwait from Baghdad. Bush said in his State of the Union address that Iraq had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard agent and the nerve agent VX and that it had more than 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents.

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