Did the United States finally find the so-called "smoking gun" in Iraq? The White House says two mobile laboratories found recently provide "proof positive" that Saddam Hussein had illegal weapons programs. RFE/RL reports from Washington.
Washington, 30 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The White House says two tractor-trailers recently found in Iraq provide irrefutable evidence that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein meant to continue producing biological weapons.
Officials say the mobile chemical laboratories were found on two separate occasions last month. They say initial examinations found them to have been capable of producing somewhat small amounts of poisons like anthrax. Hussein's government said they were meant to generate hydrogen for weather balloons.
An initial inspection found no trace of any chemicals -- dangerous or benign -- on the trucks. U.S. officials said they had recently been cleaned with a strong solvent. The vehicles were then studied by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The CIA issued a report on 28 May declaring them to have been designed only to produce biological weapons. It called their discovery the "strongest evidence to date" that Hussein had a clandestine, mobile biological-warfare program.
Yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked about the report, and he replied unequivocally. "There is now proof positive that he [Hussein] had these biological mobile trucks for the purpose of producing biological weapons."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld echoed the statement, saying in an interview yesterday the United States had "good intelligence" about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and says he believes they will still be found. Earlier this week, Rumsfeld said Iraq may have destroyed its weapons before the war began.
There is growing controversy over why the U.S.-led coalition forces have not yet found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Some Western media recently have alleged that Hussein's regime did not have such weapons. Furthermore, they say Western intelligence knew this to be true but nevertheless used the weapons to justify the need for military action.
Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction was a key reason cited by the United States and Britain in urging the United Nations to support a war against Iraq. Specifically, U.S. President George W. Bush said Hussein posed an imminent threat to his neighbors in the Middle East, and to other countries.
But in the weeks since the major fighting ended in Iraq, no such weapons have been found. Some critics of the Bush administration have questioned the quality of the intelligence used by Bush and his chief ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to warrant an invasion.
Blair, speaking today in Poland, said accusations that intelligence agencies might have fabricated evidence of Iraqi weapons programs were "completely absurd."
"The evidence that we had of weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] was evidence drawn up and accepted by the joint intelligence committee. That evidence of weapons of mass destruction is evidence of which I have absolutely no doubt about at all," Blair said.
Both Blair and Bush have urged patience, noting that Iraq is a huge and largely rugged country where weapons could elude discovery for months. So it is not surprising that the CIA quickly issued its evaluation of the mobile laboratories.
But not all observers agree with the CIA that the tractor-trailer trucks can be used only to produce biological weapons. One is 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 told RFE/RL that the CIA report undercuts its own conclusions by saying the equipment in the trailers could be used for generating hydrogen, as Hussein's government had contended.
The report goes on to say that the equipment was designed with more exacting specifications than are necessary for such non-military work. But Wolfstahl says manufacturers routinely design such equipment to be "over-engineered," as he put it, in order to impress their customers.
"I have no question that these labs were most likely intended for BW [biological weapons] production, but I think the CIA's assessment isn't solid enough to win over critics of the [Bush] administration or people who believe that the U.S. is biased and not able to give an objective assessment," Wolfstahl says.
Responding to Rumsfeld's earlier allegation that Iraq had destroyed its weapons ahead of the U.S.-led war, Wolfstahl says this scenario is unlikely for two reasons. The first reason, he says, is strategic: Hussein would not deny himself what might be his most effective weapons as he was facing an imminent war that could lead to his downfall or even death.
The second reason, Wolfstahl says, is more practical: "It is not feasible for Saddam Hussein's regime to have destroyed these weapons on the eve of the war without us [U.S. and British intelligence services] either detecting it during the process or uncovering the evidence now. This is not like dumping one 55-gallon (115-liter) drum in the desert. These are hundreds of tons, thousands of liters, of material that, if they were dumped or destroyed, there would be evidence of. And we have yet to come up with that evidence."
Still, Wolfstahl says finding a significant illegal weapons cache in Iraq has become important to the credibility of Bush and Blair -- and of their intelligence services -- because of the importance the two leaders placed on what they characterized as Hussein's threat.
For his part, Wolfstahl says he does not question the quality of the intelligence, saying that it is more an art than a science. But he adds that to justify the war, Bush and Blair may have chosen to publicly declare the size of Hussein's arsenal as being at the higher end of the range of intelligence assessments.
"I think it's very possible that these weapons didn't exist in the amounts that the administration believed that they did exist in, and that there are a lot of questions that have to be asked not just about the intelligence-collection process, but also [about] the way that the intelligence was presented, massaged, and used," Wolfstahl says.
To Anthony Cordesman, however, there is no reason for Bush and Blair to point to the recently discovered mobile laboratories to vindicate their decision to invade Iraq and depose Hussein. Cordesman is a former high-ranking intelligence officer at the U.S. defense and state departments and has written extensively on military and intelligence issues.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Cordesman says Hussein's program to develop weapons of mass destruction was confirmed in the 1990s by the weapons inspectors of the UN Special Commission for Iraq (UNSCOM). Even the more recent inspections conducted by the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), found Iraq may have been trying to conceal weapons production, although chief inspector Hans Blix stopped short of confirming that work on weapons programs was ongoing.
"The UNSCOM effort made it quite clear that Iraq continued to violate the terms of the cease-fire by importing the equipment to produce weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq was not accounting for its research-and-development effort, it was not accounting for the destruction of its weapons, and it was not accounting for supplies. You've got basically the same conclusion by UNMOVIC," Cordesman says.
To Cordesman, the only debatable issue at the moment is whether Bush and Blair overestimated the amount of weapons Hussein may have possessed, and if so, by how much.
"What we are really talking about is not whether Iraq was a proliferator, because the UN had basically answered that question before the war began. It is really whether the United States and Britain took what was a UN estimate that Iraq had capabilities that couldn't be accounted for and translated that into a false estimate that Iraq was actively developing and producing weapons for immediate deployment," Cordesman says.
According to Cordesman, the existence of Hussein's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons was never in doubt. Therefore, deposing Hussein and routing his government was justified under the terms of the cease-fire that ended hostilities in the 1991 Gulf War.
Cordesman says the recent discovery of mass graves in Iraq is further evidence of the illegitimacy of Hussein's rule, and provides extra validation of the war.