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Iraq: Washington Seeking To Prove Hussein Intended To Produce WMD As Efforts To Find Stockpiles Fail

What was Saddam Hussein concealing? As U.S. teams continue to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they are increasingly focusing on proving that Saddam Hussein intended to develop such weapons, even if no stockpiles can be found. The shift in emphasis comes as the U.S. administration finds itself on the defensive over criticism that it overestimated the threat from Hussein's weapons programs as a reason to go to war last year.

Prague, 1 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The top U.S. arms hunter in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, told U.S. Senate committees this week (30 March) that his teams will continue their so far unsuccessful efforts to uncover weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the country.

But Duelfer said that in the absence of any finds, he is focusing the weapons-hunting Iraqi Survey Group (ISG) on uncovering Saddam Hussein's intention to create a WMD program. He said questions of particular interest are whether Hussein had weapons that he ordered to be hidden or whether the regime's intention was to have a "breakout production capacity." Such a capacity would have been designed to provide chemical or biological weapons on short notice.

Duelfer, who is the representative of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the 1,300-strong ISG, also said that investigators' work is complicated by the continuing reluctance of Iraqi scientists who once worked for Hussein to provide information. He said "many perceive a grave risk in speaking with us. On one hand, there is a fear of prosecution or arrest. On the other, there is a fear former regime supporters will exact retribution."

The ISG's new emphasis on trying to discover what Saddam ordered in connection with his WMD program comes as the U.S. administration is facing increasing domestic criticism over how it portrayed the security threat Hussein's regime posed to the world.

In the run-up to last year's U.S.-led toppling of Hussein, both Washington and London stressed that Baghdad was continuing its earlier, UN-documented efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, despite Iraqi claims that those programs had been abandoned.

U.S. President George W. Bush stated Washington's position in a key speech in February -- just weeks before the U.S.-led invasion.

"Evidently, some in the world don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace. I respectfully disagree,” Bush said. “Saddam Hussein has gassed his own people, Saddam has got weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein has defied the United Nations. Saddam Hussein is providing links to terrorists. Saddam Hussein is a threat to America, and we will deal with him."

The administration said that Hussein posed a "grave and gathering threat" that should be stopped. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell described that threat to the UN, just a few days before Bush's speech.

"There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more, and he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that cause massive death and destruction," Powell said.

U.S. arms hunters have been unable to locate any weapons of mass destruction in the wake of Saddam's overthrow. U.S. officials have argued that the former Iraqi regime may have carefully hid its stockpiles ahead of the war. But the White House is now increasingly on the defensive to provide evidence for those assertions.

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic Party's presumptive candidate for U.S. president in the November election, has called on the Bush administration to acknowledge that it was wrong in its prewar assessments.

Criticism of the Bush administration's assessments of Saddam's capabilities got a boost in January when Duelfer's predecessor, David Kay, resigned his post, saying he felt it is unlikely Hussein had any stockpiles of WMD.

Kay told a congressional panel in January, "I believe that the effort [by weapons inspectors in Iraq] that has been directed, to this point, has been sufficiently intense that it is highly unlikely that there were large stockpiles of deployed, militarized chemical and biological weapons there."

Kay put the blame for any flawed assessments on the intelligence community and did not accuse the Bush administration of manipulating evidence.

Duelfer's emphasis on now looking at Hussein's "intentions" might suggest that the U.S. administration will seek to defuse the mounting criticism by arguing that the Iraqi regime's WMD programs violated UN disarmament resolutions, whether or not they actually produced usable stockpiles.

Duelfer said, "it is clear that Iraq was in violation of UN resolutions." He cited as examples of violations the Hussein regime's purchases of prohibited military equipment and the hiding of plans that could lead to the making of barred weapons.

Duelfer said, "We do not know whether Saddam [Hussein] was concealing WMD in the final years or planning to resume production once more sanctions were lifted. We do not know what he ordered his senior ministers to undertake." He said that now "we must determine what Saddam ordered, what his ministers ordered, and how the plans fit together."

Duelfer also said that inspectors had uncovered new information that Iraq had in place at least the technical ability to use civilian facilities to quickly produce the chemical and biological agents needed for weapons.