The capture of deposed President Saddam Hussein is sparking new debate concerning the whereabouts of Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Washington maintains the weapons posed an urgent enough threat to require toppling Hussein's regime. But some top arms inspectors say they increasingly believe most of the weapons were destroyed. Will Hussein's capture finally clear up the mystery?
Prague, 17 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. finally has in custody the man who knows whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction so dangerous that they justified Washington's pre-emptive toppling of his regime.
But so far, the 13 December capture of Hussein has not produced any startling revelations. Instead, the former Iraqi leader has reportedly told his interrogators what he has said for more than a decade now -- that his government no longer possessed any banned weapons.
The weekly U.S. news magazine "Time" reports that when interrogators asked if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Hussein replied: "No, of course not. The U.S. dreamed them up itself to have a reason to go to war with us."
Beyond that statement, revealed privately to the magazine by an intelligence official, nothing is known about what Hussein is telling his captors. But his capture -- and his accusation that Washington "dreamed up" his weapons of mass destruction -- has reignited Western debate over whether such weapons will ever be found.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair vigorously joined the fray yesterday, saying that since Hussein was toppled last April, U.S. inspection teams have uncovered what he called "massive evidence" of efforts by the former regime to develop WMD. He said the U.S.-led inspectors -- the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) -- must continue their work.
"We've got to carry on the work that we're doing because, contrary to some of the things that appear, the Iraq Survey Group has already found massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists, plans to develop long-range ballistic missiles," Blair said.
Blair also called for patience while the teams search, saying Iraq is a large country where it is easy to hide evidence of past activities.
"Now frankly, these things weren't being developed unless they were developed for a purpose, and I think it will take us time. But I just say to people continually when a country with a ruler like Hussein tries to hide what it's doing, in a large country like Iraq, it's relatively easy to hide it," Blair said.
But even as Blair assured the British public that Hussein's weapons programs will be exposed, other influential voices joined the debate to contradict his position.
Former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said yesterday that it is becoming "increasingly clear" that Hussein's regime destroyed most of its weapons of mass destruction in 1991 after the Gulf War.
Blix told Swedish media that "my guess is that there are no weapons of mass destruction left.... I think many of the things that were said [about Iraq having them] were not sufficiently well-based."
Blix was head of the UN monitoring commission that returned inspectors to Iraq late last year. The inspectors -- who had been barred from Iraq by Hussein for four years -- worked for three months before a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in what was billed as an urgent action to eliminate Baghdad's weapons threat. Blix opposed the military operation, arguing that the UN inspections were making progress in assuring Iraq was disarmed and merited more time to work.
Analysts say the debate over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is likely to continue until some final proof comes forward to end it. But the effort to find such proof could take months more -- or even years.
John Hart is a researcher specializing in chemical and biological weapons at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden. He says the ISG is amassing huge numbers of documents, all of which will have to be painstakingly analyzed.
"There is the sheer volume of paperwork that has been collected. This is citing what [ISG head] David Kay says, [that] if you line up all the paperwork, it is about seven miles' worth of documentation. So that takes a lot of time to go through," Hart said.
At the same time, it is far from certain that when the ISG finally produces its findings, they will convince all parties that Hussein had dangerous weaponry. That is because, since the U.S.-led inspectors have yet to find any operational weapons of mass destruction, they are increasingly concentrating on merely proving that Iraq had an ongoing capability to produce them.
Hart describes the shift in the U.S. hunt for evidence by saying that with the first U.S. inspection organization, the Mobile Exploitation Teams, "it is fairly clear that they were looking for weapons, and they thought they would find weapons. And then gradually the terms 'program' and 'capability' started to pop up, and a strong emphasis is being placed on programs and capabilities by the ISG."
He continues: "If it can be clearly demonstrated that there were these programs in existence, maybe they were put on ice to some extent. But, nevertheless, if it can be demonstrated these programs still existed and were being pursued, then that's a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 687 [demanding Iraq give up all weapons of mass destruction programs]."
That may mean -- barring some sudden admission by Hussein -- the debate over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will remain just as contentious months from now as it is today.
Critics of the U.S. and British pre-emptive action in Iraq will continue to argue that Washington and London overstated the level of immediate threat that Baghdad posed.
And proponents of the action will argue that Hussein possessed the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction and that, combined with his history of attacking neighboring states, was reason enough to remove him from power.