Saddam is Gone, But What About His Weapons?

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STEPHEN HIRD/AFP

Speaking at his monthly news conference, Tony Blair says he remains confident that evidence of weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq

The Iraq war is over, remarkably quickly and with remarkably few coalition casualties. Of course, continuing hostility to U.S. troops among substantial sections of the Iraqi population suggests that tens of thousands of American soldiers may have to remain there on a protracted and often messy stabilization mission. But even though Saddam Hussein and most of his inner circle remain at large for now, the regime has been destroyed, and the U.S. has begun rebuilding Iraq. The casual TV viewer could be forgiven for forgetting all about the ever-elusive weapons of mass destruction whose elimination was the ostensible purpose of the war.

Not that the U.S. hasn't been trying to find them. An almost weekly rhythm of widely reported false alarms is a reminder that the Pentagon has deployed hundreds of its own personnel to find the banned weapons that had eluded UN inspectors before war. Last weekend, it was announced that the number of U.S. inspectors would be increased to 1,500 — five times the number of deployed by Dr. Hans Blix's UN team. But so far, no "smoking gun" has been found.

That's not surprising, say coalition chiefs, urging patience and projecting confidence. Saddam had years to practice the art of concealment, but the truth will eventually come out. Banned weapons will be found, insisted Secretary of State Colin Powell on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Britain's prime minister Tony Blair made the same assurance to Britons. And President Bush last week suggested that the banned weapons may even have been destroyed ahead of the invasion, but added that the U.S. would nonetheless eventually prove that a WMD program had existed.

Although many U.S. combat teams were trained to look out for signs of banned weapons in facilities they overran, the dedicated inspection teams sent in by the Pentagon as the fighting died down initially focused on the 150 "hottest" suspected WMD sites identified by U.S. intelligence before the war — and that searches of the first 90 sites on that list had proved fruitless. That has reportedly prompted a switch to a far wider search in the hope of turning up unexpected evidence, and a greater effort to track down and interrogate individuals who may have been involved in such programs. The senior Baathist officials currently being interrogated by coalition officers are uniformly denying that the regime had weapons of mass destruction before the war — although coalition commanders believe the captives are lying to protect themselves.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Still, the absence of WMD finds and the changes in the work and composition of the inspection team has raised questions about the strength of prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs. Sidelined chief UN inspector Hans Blix has taken to chortling publicly that the U.S. and Britain launched a war on the basis of "shaky intelligence."

Even as they urge patience, coalition leaders are also dampening public expectations of "smoking gun" finds. The weapons were moved or perhaps destroyed ahead of the invasion, some say. Key evidence may have been removed and destroyed under cover of looting. Another official warns that coalition forces are unlikely to find actual weapons, but more likely the means to assemble such weapons.

And, with "smoking gun" evidence proving as elusive now as it was before the invasion began, some coalition officials are trying to shift attention away from the search and onto the coalition's achievement in ousting Saddam. Administration officials even told ABC's Nightline that weapons of mass destruction were not actually the primary reason for going to war; instead, they became the focus of Bush administration efforts to win domestic and international backing for an invasion whose objective was to establish a beachhead for democracy against terrorism in the Middle East. "We were not lying," one official told the network. "But it was just a matter of emphasis."

Similarly, Tony Blair told a press conference on Monday that finding weapons of mass destruction is a lesser priority than stabilizing Iraq. Such reasoning may play well in the U.S., where a recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 57 percent of voters believe the war was worthwhile even if no banned weapons are ever found. But Blair's own electorate may be more inclined to hold him to his prewar insistence that the invasion was necessitated by an imminent unconventional weapons threat. And the danger that such weapons could have been transferred to terrorists would certainly require that they be found as a matter of urgency in the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.

Russia's antiwar president Vladimir Putin appeared to be enjoying Blair's predicament during a joint press conference, Wednesday, sarcastically suggesting that Saddam may be hiding in a bunker filled with weapons of mass destruction, waiting to blow up all of Iraq, and that such weapons would have to be accounted for before Russia could agree to the lifting of UN sanctions. Blair stoically insisted that evidence of the banned weapons would emerge.

Of course, President Bush's domestic political handlers have no reason for concern over the whereabouts of Saddam's unconventional weapons. But substantiating his prewar claim that Saddam's regime possessed upwards 100 tons of terror weapons making it an intolerable threat to international security remains an important test of U.S. credibility on the world stage.

After all, it was not for failing to topple a brutal dictator that U.S. officials chided the United Nations, but for failing to respond to an imminent WMD danger. To that end, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a detailed indictment of Iraq at the UN Security Council on February 5. But so far, little evidence has emerged to back up some of his allegations. Powell had warned, for example, that the Iraqi military had, last November, dispersed rocket launchers and warheads containing biological weapons to various locations in Western Iraq, where they were hidden in palm groves and moved every four weeks to avoid detection. None of these have yet been found. Nor have checks of some of the other locations mentioned by Powell in his presentation yet divulged any evidence. Other administration officials had said, prior to the U.S. advance on Baghdad, that Special Republican Guard units around the capital had been issued chemical weapons. Again, none have materialized, so far.

Such materials may well have been hidden or destroyed ahead of the invasion, and they may well emerge in the weeks and months ahead, with the help of intelligence gleaned from interrogations. Meanwhile, President Bush noted last week, "One thing is for certain: Saddam Hussein no longer threatens America with weapons of mass destruction." The successful overthrow of a barbarous dictator may be enough for the U.S. electorate. But in much of the wider world, the jury may stay out until evidence is produced affirming the existence of such a threat on the eve of the war.