by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
one month ago, U.S. President George W. Bush declared that unless Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his two sons left the country, the United States would take military action to remove him and disarm the country of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
"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," Bush said, reiterating Washington's contention that Baghdad had ignored United Nations demands to destroy them.
"Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed, and it will not disarm so long as Saddam Hussein holds power," Bush went on, linking the presence of WMD with the need to enforce "regime change."
One month later, U.S. forces control virtually all of Iraq, Saddam's regime has been ousted, but no WMD have been found, despite an intensive search of suspect sites that began in January when U.S. special operations forces were dropped into western Iraq precisely to help locate WMD facilities.
While the Pentagon insists -- and many independent experts agree -- that it remains too early to conclude that Baghdad was telling the truth when it insisted it had destroyed all of its chemical and biological weapons and abandoned its nuclear program, the fact that no direct evidence -- aside from protective gear -- of the existence of those arms has turned up is causing growing concern within the administration.
"The longer no weapons are found, the more significant the issue becomes," said Mark Burgess, an arms-control expert with the Center for Defense Information here. "While a lot of people believe that even if weapons of mass destruction aren't found the war was justified anyway, a lot of others are watching very carefully to see whether Bush was right."
Burgess, like many other analysts, says Washington should immediately invite the UN weapons inspectors into Iraq to continue the work of finding WMD that was interrupted by the war. "Even if some is found now, there will be a lot of skepticism about whether it was planted (by the U.S. military)," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, along with the leaders of France and Germany had appealed to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to give UN inspectors more time before resorting to war, called Thursday for chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to resume his work. While the Pentagon does not exclude the possibility of UN inspectors returning to Iraq, it is insisting on exclusive control for the moment.
In an interview with the BBC on Friday, Blix said the fact that no weapons had been found made him slightly more inclined to believe Baghdad's pre-war claims that all of its WMD had been destroyed.
From an international point of view, the issue is particularly important, because Bush justified military action on U.S. contentions that Iraq had massive quantities of WMD and the means to deliver them and that it could transfer these to terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda with which, according to the administration, Baghdad was linked.
While the evidence presented for the latter assertion was widely regarded as particularly weak, the notion that Hussein had WMD programmes was much more widely accepted, in part because he had used chemical weapons during the 1980s and because UN inspectors found enormous supplies of chemical weapons and a more advanced than expected nuclear programme when they were deployed to Iraq after the first Gulf War through most of the 1990s.
In a Feb. 5 presentation to the UN Security Council, illustrated by satellite photos and transcripts of intercepted phone conversations of Iraqi military officials, Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted that a "conservative estimate" of Iraq's chemical-weapons stockpile ran to 100 to 500 tonnes, or enough "to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets."
He also asserted the existence of "biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails," including "perhaps 18 trucks that we know of" and a new nuclear weapons programme to take the place of the one dismantled in the mid-1990s by the inspectors.
But the latter assertion was largely discredited by UN inspectors, who found that tubes imported by Iraq that Washington said would be used for a nuclear programme had been used for missiles instead and that written correspondence regarding the purported sale by the government of Niger of uranium to Iraq had been forged.
The Pentagon said Friday that its experts have visited only about 50 sites on a list of several hundred, and that the new "Iraq Survey Group," which reportedly includes several dozen former UN arms inspectors, will be able to work at a much faster rate. At the same time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed skepticism that they would find anything. "What we will do is find the people who will tell us," he said.
Saddam's top science adviser, Gen. Amir al-Saadi, surrendered voluntarily to U.S. military forces a week ago, insisting, as he did before the war, that Iraq had destroyed its WMD stocks. "Time will bear me out," he told a German television network before turning himself in.
Several analysts with close ties to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have said for some time that Washington did not have concrete evidence -- certainly not of large stocks -- of WMD, as it contended.
Just before the war, veteran investigative military analyst William Arkin wrote in the 'Los Angeles Times' that Air Force officers working on the war plan said "there is not a single confirmed chem/bio target on their list." Retired intelligence officers also complained that administration hawks were politicizing information to fit their objectives.
"I'm not willing to say that Iraq had no capability, but there is no question that the administration dissembled and that a major investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee needs to be made," said Mel Goodman, a retired senior CIA analyst now with the Center for International Policy.
"In view of the lack of credibility of the U.S. government on these issues," Goodman added in an on-line 'Washington Post' interview, "it is essential to bring in the international community immediately for the inspection and authorization phase of the hunt for WMD." If little or none can be found, "we will lose a great deal of respect, legitimacy, and credibility."
"It certainly will make the administration justification for pre-emption a lot less convincing," said Burgess.
While U.S. public opinion polls show no particular concern about the issue now -- overall approval of the war and Bush's handling of it is running between 70 and 74 percent -- the failure to prove the existence of a real threat as laid out by the administration could prove costly in the long run, according to Steven Kull, a specialist on public opinion on global policy issues at the University of Maryland.
"Now, there's a lot of focus on liberating Iraqi people, but, as that wears away, and we're evaluating the president in the context of the upcoming election, and no evidence of WMD is found, he will have a problem."
April 18, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.