Where Are Saddam's WMD?

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Bush spent the week trying to convince leaders like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to support the U.S. in Iraq

President Bush this week told the UN General Assembly that he went to war in Iraq to defend the credibility of the international body. Saddam's weapons of mass destruction represented an intolerable threat to international security, Bush said, and if the UN was derelict in its duty to confront that threat, the U.S. could afford no such luxury. But the Bush administration's current efforts on the sidelines at the UN to persuade reluctant nations to send troops to relieve the burden carried by U.S. forces in Iraq has not been helped by the absence of evidence to support the centerpiece of Washington's case for war: Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction threat.

For the past six months, the Bush administration and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair have urged skeptics to be patient. The weapons will be found, they've said repeatedly. It's a big country, and Saddam had a decade to perfect his concealment techniques. Wait for David Kay and his 1,400-member Iraq Survey Group to complete their work. But with Kay due to submit a preliminary report to Congress in the next two weeks, either the Bush administration is playing an excellent game of rope-a-dope by deliberately dampening expectations ahead of a major surprise, or else the search has been a bust.

U.S. and British officials told various media sources this week that Kay's group has found no unconventional weapons or laboratories to build them, despite their freedom of access throughout Iraq and cooperation from officials of Saddam's regime. Instead, it will show documentary and other evidence suggesting that Saddam's regime harbored the intent to eventually reconstitute its biological and chemical weapons production programs, and had refined the know-how and some of the dual-use infrastructure that would allow it to do so once freed of international scrutiny. Even then, a CIA spokesman says, the report won't reach firm conclusions.

Flaws in the Bush story

But inconclusive evidence of intent, know-how and the capacity to build weapons of mass destruction does not quite measure up to President Bush's claim, in his final ultimatum to Iraq on March 19, that "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." Nor to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's claim, on March 30 that "We know where the WMDs are; they're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad." Nor, for that matter, to Secretary of State Colin Powell's insistence, at the UN Security Council, that "a missile brigade outside Baghdad was dispersing rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agent to various locations, distributing them to various locations in western Iraq. Most of the launchers and warheads had been hidden in large groves of palm trees and were to be moved every one to four weeks to escape detection."

The case for going to war without delay was always couched in terms of Iraq being "a grave and gathering danger," and so far, reports suggest, Kay's group has not, thus far, come up with the goods to support that case. Which means that his preliminary report comes at a bad time for the White House and 10 Downing Street. Just this week, polls find President Bush's domestic approval ratings at an all-time low of 49 percent, while his administration faces increasing difficulty in convincing his electorate and legislature to underwrite his commitments of American life and treasure to maintain the current Iraq occupation. Blair's situation is a lot worse, with new polls finding his approval rating at 32 percent, while only 30 percent of British voters deem him "trustworthy."

The preemptive spin from Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice this week has been that Kay's group needs a lot more time to find WMD evidence. U.S. and British officials are also insisting that the belief that Saddam's regime maintained stocks of weapons of mass destruction had been conventional wisdom at the UN before the war — a point contested by former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, who insists that what the UN inspection team maintained was not the existence of prohibited weapons per se, but rather that Iraq had failed to provide satisfactory answers to questions over its claims to have destroyed those weapons — discrepancies between amounts produced and amounts destroyed, and so on. Blix has chided the U.S. and Britain for "over-interpreting" those discrepancies to make a case for war.

So where did the WMDs go?

Reasons for the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have become the focus of extensive speculation in the media and the intelligence community. Questions have included whether U.S. intelligence was faked out on Iraq's non-conventional capability either by exiles wanting to take the U.S. into Iraq or by Saddam hoping to deter them (or both); whether the discrepancies in Iraq's reporting were deliberate concealment or based on the vagaries of a Stalinist bureaucracy in which accounting was routinely exaggerated to please superiors. The question of why Saddam continued to play cat-and-mouse games with the inspectors even if he had destroyed his weapons may relate to his intent to reconstitute his programs. Kay's group will likely show evidence that Saddam's regime worked to keep as much as possible of the infrastructure of a chemical and biological weapons program in place, so that such programs could be rebuilt later. This would square with the oft-cited testimony of key defector Hussein Kamel, who pointed inspectors to a chicken farm in 1995 where scores of hidden documents and computer files had been hidden. Kamel had actually testified that Iraq had destroyed its chemical and biological weapons after the Gulf War, but that blueprints, computer files and molds for missile parts had been hidden. This echoes the case of the uranium centrifuge handed over to U.S. inspectors in June by Iraqi scientist Mahdi Obeidi, who had followed orders to keep it buried in his rose garden — since 1991.

The fate of Iraq's WMD programs remains a mystery that Kay's group will pursue. But the absence of evidence of an imminent threat helps explain the disconnect between the U.S. and reluctant allies on Iraq. Without evidence to vindicate Washington's prewar claims, the debate at the UN is reduced to the U.S. and its coalition partners painting themselves as stewards of Iraqi liberation, while skeptics and adversaries see their presence there as an unwelcome occupation which, in the words of Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri — a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism — "has created far many more problems than those it intended to solve."

President Bush told the UN that he went to war to defend its credibility. But until such time as David Kay produces concrete evidence to back the administration's prewar claims, in the UN chamber it may be Washington's own credibility that needs defending.