While the White House was fixated on Saddam Hussein's interest in procuring biological and chemical weapons, evidence uncovered by American investigators suggests that the Iraqi president spent his final years in power more determined to develop and deploy conventional ballistic missiles, hoping to keep pace with his neighbors in the Middle East.
And in that quest for weapons of more-modest destruction, the evidence shows that Iraq was not a major threat to its neighbors, much less to Europe or the United States.
The picture of Middle East security that is coming into focus after 20 months of war suggests that Iraq was less focused on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons over the past decade than it was locked in a regional arms race for short-range conventional weapons, in which Iran, Israel and Syria stand out as the most potent contestants. The profusion of ballistic missiles in the Middle East is unrivaled by any other region in the world, creating a delicate power balance in which Hussein fought determinedly, if unsuccessfully, to tip the scale.
The tension revealed itself further last week when Iran announced that it has begun mass-producing an advanced missile, called the Shehab-3, whose range of more than 1,300 kilometers brings all of Israel and most of Saudi Arabia within its reach. The announcement was followed by claims from an Iranian resistance group that the country also has a covert program to produce enriched uranium, then by suggestions from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that the United States has unconfirmed evidence that Iran is working to outfit its missiles to carry a nuclear bomb. The news fueled concerns that a new nuclear power is rising in the Middle East.
But while the potential threat of weapons of mass destruction continues to be the more dangerous wildcard in the Middle East, many analysts also saw in Iran's boast a threat that, like Hussein's, was far more conventional, and designed more to frighten its adversaries than to exterminate them.
"I think it's a threat, but it's not an unconventional threat," said Michael Donovan, research analyst for the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The Iranians, like Saddam and Syria and other countries in the Middle East, have figured out that ballistic missiles are the poor man's strategic weapon."
Ballistic missiles, which cost relatively little and are easy to use and conceal, have long been the primary counterweight in the Middle East's balance of power. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, in an essay he wrote before the war, said that "in the Middle East today there are probably more ballistic missiles per square kilometer than exist anywhere else in the world."
The types of ballistic missiles common in the Middle East are generally inaccurate and not particularly deadly when armed with a conventional explosive. A successful strike during the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, might have killed half a dozen people but was just as likely to kill no one. But missiles cost far less to operate and maintain than an air force, and they were easily acquired over the past few decades from countries such as North Korea and Russia.
Israel, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates all have missiles capable of delivering explosive payloads to their neighbors, and most of them are reportedly seeking to upgrade their arsenals with longer range, better guidance systems and more payload capacity. Evidence uncovered since the war in Iraq began shows that Saddam Hussein understood the dynamics as well as anyone.
While American investigators have found little evidence that Hussein continued his efforts to develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, evidence of Hussein's interest in longer-range missiles is far more clear and abundant. Ballistic missile development was one area in which Hussein had the plans, the infrastructure and the intention of building his arsenal, and he devised schemes to sidestep or violate the United Nations sanctions that placed limits on the range of missiles he could build or buy.
Despite a 150-kilometer restriction imposed by the cease-fire agreement that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein authorized his scientists to design missiles with ranges of 1,000 kilometers or more, according to the CIA's investigation of Iraqi weapons conducted since the war began. None of the missiles were ever produced and only one passed the design phase, the investigation found, but work on them continued until the start of the war last year.
Iraqi scientists also built a stand for testing rocket motors that was conspicuously over-engineered, and thus capable of testing missiles far more powerful than the United Nations allowed. And in 2001, Iraq imported at least 380 liquid-propellant engines from Eastern Europe designed for the Russian SA-2 anti-aircraft missile - allowed under the U.N. restrictions - but in suspiciously high quantities.