From Reuters Today
Mon March 31, 2003 04:45 PM ET
By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Twelve days into the invasion of Iraq, there is no sign of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s suspected weapons of mass destruction, the primary rationale for the U.S.-led war now pummeling the country.
U.S. officials remain confident those arms will turn up. But if they do not, President Bush’s reasons for war will be severely undercut.
Announcing the start of military action on March 19, Bush said, “At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”
Disarming Saddam of his chemical, biological, nuclear and missile capability was also the main motive behind more than a decade of U.N. sanctions on Iraq.
While U.S. and British forces have discovered chemical protective gear and stocks of atropine used as an antidote to chemical poisoning, no major depots or production facilities for unconventional arms have been publicly identified.
“It’s impossible to prove a negative, but Iraq maintained that its weapons were destroyed and the U.S. maintained Iraq was lying. That’s what this war was supposed to be about,” said Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
CREDIBILITY AT RISK
At a time when opposition to the U.S. attack on Iraq has drawn thousands of people into the streets of major world cities, “it basically casts American credibility in the worst possible light if we don’t find these WMD,” Wolfsthal said.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that U.S. special forces had already pursued their 10 best intelligence leads in Iraq but came up dry at each location.
Bush administration officials, prickly in the face of sniping at its war plans, insist critics are too impatient.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. and British forces controlled areas in the south, west and north of Iraq but that the weapons of mass destruction had been dispersed elsewhere—around Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.
Unfazed that none of those arms had yet been found, he expressed frustration anyone would think military forces could attack a site “and find out what’s there in 15 minutes.”
The CIA has argued that after U.N. inspectors left in 1998, Iraq maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program and invested more heavily in biological arms.
Before the current war, Iraq was believed to be reconstituting its nuclear weapons program and “if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade,” the CIA said in an October 2002 report. The report also noted Baghdad “hides large portions” of its WMD efforts.
Prewar U.N. inspections found no “plausible indication” a nuclear program was revived, but questions persist about Iraq’s chemical and biological capability.
THE HUNT PERSISTS
Danielle Pletka said a decade as a U.S. Senate aide with access to U.S. intelligence left her persuaded “it is a physical impossibility that we will not find WMD in Iraq.”
Even opponents of the U.S. war believe the evidence exists. “Let’s be cautious. Let’s be patient. It’s very possible that weapons will be found,” said one European diplomat whose country has been at odds with Washington on Iraq.
But it will not be easy since Saddam used the past decade to conceal his arsenal more effectively, said Pletka, now a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute.
The U.S. search is expected to be most productive once the Iraqi leader is toppled.
Then, “people who have been involved in the WMD programs will be in a position to talk. … They will feel freer to talk,” a senior U.S. official said.
But U.S. officials are leaving themselves wiggle room in case the weapons do not materialize. Rumsfeld said “dozens of trucks” had been seen moving things out of one facility, “so there may be nothing left.”
Unconfirmed reports suggest Saddam may have dispersed arms to Syria or elsewhere, but experts doubt that would account for the entire arsenal.
Even if WMD are found in Iraq, Bush could have a problem—convincing a skeptical, often hostile world the United States did not “plant” the arms to justify its case against Saddam. For that reason, key European leaders have urged Washington to involve U.N. inspectors in the hunt, something U.S. officials oppose.
Copyright Reuters 2002. All rights reserved.