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Iraq: Hussein's Suspected Weapons Elude Investigators As U.S. Looks To Low-Ranking Iraqis For Help

The United States has said it went to war against the Iraqi regime to disarm it of weapons of mass destruction. Three weeks after the fall of Baghdad, no significant caches of such arms have been found -- and no Iraqis have yet stepped forward to point the way.

Washington, 7 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction are proving as elusive to U.S. and British investigators as they were to United Nations weapons inspectors.

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair used the alleged existence of these weapons as their primary reason for unseating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But it has been a month since Hussein fell, and no meaningful cache of such weapons has turned up.

Speaking yesterday in Washington, Bush acknowledged this fact but insisted such weapons will be found eventually: "One thing we know is [Saddam Hussein] had a weapons program. We also know he spent years trying to hide the weapons program, and over time, the truth will come out, and the American people will see that when we rid Saddam Hussein, when we got him out of power, we made America more secure."

The U.S. military issued decks of playing cards bearing the faces of the 55 most-wanted officials in Hussein's government. So far, 19 of them have been captured, and at least one has been killed.

Among those in custody are senior scientists who are accused of deep involvement in the development of chemical or biological weapons, as well as other senior officials who may know the whereabouts of Hussein's weapons.

None of these senior people, however, has so far led U.S. or British officials to Iraq's illegal arms. At his ranch, Bush complained that even former Deputy Premier Tariq Aziz, who was one of Hussein's highest-ranking aides, has been of no help.

"What are we learning? Well, we're learning, for example, that Tariq Aziz still doesn't know how to tell the truth," Bush said. "He didn't know how to tell the truth when he was in office [and] he doesn't know how to tell the truth as a captive."

In fact, Bush said, allied officials may get more help from lower-ranking Iraqis, those who "carry the water" -- as the president put it -- for their superiors. This approach makes sense to John Wolfstahl, the deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private-policy research center in Washington.

Wolfstahl tells RFE/RL that senior scientists and military officials may indeed be able to describe the nature of Iraq's weapons programs, as well as their scope. But he says U.S. and British forces have an urgent need to find the arms quickly, before they can be used, sold to terrorist groups, or perhaps contaminate their surroundings.

According to Wolfstahl, middle- and lower-level Iraqis can probably be much more specific about what weapons may have been destroyed or hidden in the days and weeks before the war began.

"In terms of getting a glimpse of the overall picture, knowing how these things were hidden, knowing how much of material we're looking for, I think the upper level [officials] are going to be important," Wolfstahl said. "In terms of the immediate needs right now, I would say the people that have been getting their fingernails dirty are more critical."

Bush says he expects these lower-level Iraqis eventually will "come forward" to lead American and British officials to weapons caches, just as they recently led to the discovery of mass graves in Iraq.

However, none of these low-ranking Iraqis with knowledge of chemical and biological weapons has yet volunteered to help U.S. forces. Wolfstahl says the Americans have nobody to blame for this but themselves.

"We're still essentially treating these people as criminals, and so they may not be comfortable handing themselves over to the Americans," he said. "There's also no guarantee that by coming forward now they may not face punishment as traitors down the line by a new Iraqi government. They're not being offered amnesty or protection or evacuation out of the country. So I think the United States is, in part, approaching this problem from the wrong direction. We should be encouraging these people to come forward with incentives, as opposed to saying, 'We're going to track you down to the last man.'"

Wolfstahl emphasized that he does not believe Americans are ruining the chances of ever getting meaningful cooperation from the Iraqis in their weapons hunt. But he says Washington should reconsider its strategy for eliciting help.

"I would argue in the long run we want these people to be part of the rebuilding of Iraq and make sure we're channeling them into positive pursuits, as opposed to pushing them underground and maybe forcing them out of the country to benefit weapons programs in other countries," Wolfstahl said. "So I think we do need to re-evaluate how we're approaching this problem. I think we're going to find both people and materials sooner rather than later, but I think we want to accelerate that process and increase our chances as much as possible."

Retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson takes a far less optimistic view of the allied search for weapons of mass destruction. In fact, he says he is not convinced that Hussein even had a large enough number of these arms to warrant the concern of Bush and British Premier Tony Blair.

Atkeson was an intelligence officer in Europe during his years of military service, and he says that given the lack of detail about Hussein's suspected arsenal, he would not even bother to distinguish between high- and low-ranking Iraqis in considering whom to question.

"I'd just have to go after them all, with equal vigor," he said. "When you don't have a good target, you've got to do a shotgun blast."

Atkeson says he does not necessarily believe that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. But he adds that neither the United States nor Britain publicly released any convincing intelligence indicating that he did. And that, he says, raises questions about the legitimacy of the war.

"Long before anybody had thought of weapons of mass destruction, we had a small cadre in the Pentagon that thought that Saddam Hussein's a bad guy and he ought to go. And they had to have some sort of a contrivance to get in there, and [the issue of weapons of mass destruction] was a good one."

Atkeson says that for the sake of their own credibility, the U.S. and Britain must persuade Iraqis to cooperate in the weapons hunt. But he says he is resigned to the possibility that a significant amount of weapons will never be found.

But that, Atkeson says, may not be a great embarrassment for Bush and Blair. He notes that since the war, evidence of Hussein's use of widespread torture and mass executions has emerged. Although this was not the primary reason the United States and Britain cited for going to war, he says, the American and British publics will probably accept Hussein's overthrow anyway and dismiss the pretext of biological and chemical weapons -- even if they do not forget it.