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Iraq: Finding Weapons Of Mass Destruction Takes On Political Urgency

The stated reason that the United States and Britain went to war against Iraq was the belief that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed and was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). United Nations inspectors found no traces of WMD prior to the military campaign, but coalition experts will soon be scouring the country for evidence of these arms. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully explores how many of these weapons must be found in order to justify the conflict in the eyes of the world.

Washington, 15 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Now that Saddam Hussein's government has fallen and military action in Iraq appears to be winding down, allied forces have begun giving greater priority to the search for suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Possessing these weapons, or failing to account for them, was the trigger for the so-called "serious consequences" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441. But in the more than four months between the passing of 1441 and the start of the war, UN weapons inspectors found no nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in Iraq.

Now, however, U.S. military authorities are examining 11 containers buried close to an artillery ammunition plant in southern Iraq. They say the discovery could be mobile dual-use chemical and biological laboratories.

During the weekend, one of Husseins's senior nuclear scientists said there are simply none to be found. Amer al-Saadi told German ZDF television network, "I was knowledgeable about those [weapons] programs, the past programs. And I was telling the truth, always telling the truth, and I told nothing but the truth. And time will bear me out, you will see. There will be no difference after this war."

But both the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush and Britain's government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, say Hussein had these weapons, and are determined to find them.

Yesterday, Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was asked how many of these weapons would have to be found to demonstrate that Bush and Blair are right. Fleischer replied, "According to the United Nations resolutions, any quantity was prohibited, any quantity. And I'm not saying that as an effort to set a bar at any level or any other level, because we'll find exactly what we find, and the world will know."

Anthony Cordesman is a specialist in military strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research center. He tells RFE/RL that it would be politically advantageous for coalition forces to find a significant amount of these arms.

But Cordesman says that the sort of evidence that he expects them to find may not be convincing to skeptics, particularly among Arabs and Muslims. He says this evidence is likely to be detailed and complex.

Cordesman says the disclosure of this evidence likely will be muddied by references to obscure research and development efforts, imports of ingredients and manufacturing equipment, and the existence of materials that can be used both in civil and military applications -- known as "dual-use."

As a result, Cordesman says, such evidence is likely to be ignored by those who have opposed the U.S. and British policy on Iraq. Many opponents of the war say it is merely a thinly veiled effort to control the Middle East and, more specifically, to control Iraq's oil.

"It's almost impossible, in the Middle East, to defuse conspiracy theories without, shall we say, evidence that is so dramatic that it is absolutely impossible to argue. And at this point in time, while I think the evidence will emerge that Iraq was still deeply involved in these programs, [what the United States is likely to find] isn't going to be the kind of evidence that people who oppose the war might be convinced by."

According to Cordesman, the coalition partners -- particularly the high-ranking members of the Bush administration -- have nobody but themselves to blame for such skepticism. He mentioned no one by name, but said the behavior of some top Bush aides tends to project a dominating image of U.S. foreign policy to the rest of the world.

"As long as the United States is the world's only superpower, some of this [incredulity on the part of Arabs and others] is inevitable. And the more any given U.S. administration tends to act unilaterally -- and particularly the more it has senior officials [who] can sometimes be a little careless about their rhetoric -- the more these sort of theories are going to go on."

Cordesman says, however, that he believes Bush's Middle East policy is neither colonialist nor focused on Iraqi oil. He says that if the United States and Britain were to demonstrate this to the world, such skepticism will likely lessen.

Another analyst, Christopher Prebble, says he believes that weapons of mass destruction are beside the point. Prebble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank.

Prebble says he believes that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but complains that Bush and Blair have made these weapons more important than they should be by predicating the war on them. This is not an acceptable reason for toppling a government, he says. Otherwise, many more countries would be targeted for regime change, even France.

"The only justification for the use of force is if [a] government threatens the United States or vital U.S. interests. That's why I was always more focused on the linkages between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. I thought those linkages were not particularly strong. I think if, however, coalition forces were able to show a much stronger linkage than was shown prior to the war, that might give greater justification. But the fact is that deterrence still works -- it works against states, it does not work against terrorists."

According to Prebble, the U.S. government did a poor job of linking Hussein and Al-Qaeda in the months leading up to the war. So far, he notes, the only terrorist group known to be operating in Iraq is Ansar al-Islam, which is based in an area of northern Iraq that is controlled by Kurds and policed by U.S. and British warplanes.

Prebble says it is still possible that Al-Qaeda cells will be found in Iraq once the fighting ends and coalition forces stabilize the country. But he says that with Hussein no longer exerting tight control over his weapons, U.S. and British forces must be quick to find them.

"I think there's a good likelihood that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," says Prebble. "The likelihood of those now falling into the hands of terrorists is far greater now that [Hussein's] government has collapsed."

Prebble says that even if terrorists do not find any weapons in Iraq, the United States and Britain must, if only to save their constituents from disappointment -- and themselves from embarrassment.