WASHINGTON—Iraq signaled Tuesday that it will soon declare it is free of weapons of mass destruction, setting the stage for a renewed confrontation with the Bush administration.
A senior U.S. official said that President Bush will launch an aggressive effort to demonstrate that the expected Iraqi claim is false, using U.S. intelligence data and pressing the United Nations to conduct weapons inspections with that goal in mind. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bush's top national security advisers met Tuesday at the White House to discuss U.S. responses to Iraq's expected claim. They plan to reconvene on Thursday, after Secretary of State Colin Powell returns from a two-day trip to Colombia.
Under a resolution adopted unanimously by the U.N. Security Council last month, Iraq has until Sunday to make a full confession of its programs to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them.
A senior Iraqi official suggested that the document, which he said will be delivered Saturday, will declare that Saddam Hussein's government no longer possesses such weapons.
"We are a country devoid of weapons of mass destruction," said Hussam Mohammed Amin, head of the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate.
The United States has promised Britain, its closest ally, that it would not launch a war against Iraq solely on the basis of a weapons declaration that it deemed false, said a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Rather, the senior official said, Bush and his aides are expected to launch a full-scale effort to prove the Iraqi document is false. That effort could take until next month, meaning the president could face a decision in January on whether to go to war.
First, the United States will carefully scrutinize the Iraqi document and compare it with U.S. intelligence information, a process that could take days or more.
Then the United States will press chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to "really do an audit, in effect, of the final declaration," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The end result of that . . . is to show the declaration to be false."
As part of the effort, Washington is expected to share additional intelligence data with Blix, other officials said.
"Certainly, you don't have an Adlai Stevenson presentation to the United Nations the next day," the senior official said, referring to the then-U.S. ambassador's 1962 presentation of spy plane photographs showing the Soviet Union had stationed missiles in Cuba.
But, eventually, Bush will probably take his case public, the official said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that, in the event of a false Iraqi declaration, the United States could begin ratcheting up pressure on Saddam by accelerating a buildup of U.S. ground forces in the Persian Gulf region for a possible invasion.
Top U.S. officials predict that Saddam will never admit the full scale of his weapons of mass destruction programs.
They base the prediction both on the importance of those weapons to Saddam's rule as well as past history.
A previous inspection group, the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), stated in its final report in January 1999 that it had found serious discrepancies in Iraq's declarations of its weapons holdings.
For example, UNSCOM said that Iraqi declarations of its holdings in the biological weapons field were assessed as "incomplete, inadequate and containing substantial deficiencies."
UNSCOM was pulled from Iraq in December 1998, days before the United States and Britain launched a four-day bombing campaign in response to Baghdad's refusal to grant the inspectors full access.
A new inspection team, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), resumed inspections last week. So far, they report full cooperation from Iraqi officials, complicating Bush's Iraq strategy.
Bush this week began shifting his rhetorical focus away from the activities of the inspectors and toward Iraq's declaration.
"The issue is not the inspectors," Bush said Tuesday. "The issue is whether or not Mr. Saddam Hussein will disarm like he said he would. We're not interested in hide and seek inside Iraq."
A short, simple denial by Saddam that Iraq has any banned weapons could be enough to trigger a U.S. build-up to war, U.S. officials and private analysts said.
"If he denies having anything, we will know he's in violation," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
In that case, administration hawks such as Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney "win. We go to war. Powell won't even put up a fight," O'Hanlon said.
Such a flat denial would make Bush's choice easy, the senior U.S. official said. "They're not going to do that," he said.
The official predicted instead that the Iraqis would acknowledge having equipment that can be used to make chemical and biological weapons, but state that it is "dual use" and intended only for civilian purposes.
It is less clear what the Iraqis will say about suspected programs to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, technology that has no clear civilian use, the official said.
In the absence of clear-cut evidence of Iraqi deception, however, Bush could find himself again at odds with other leading members of the U.N. Security Council, who are anxious to avoid a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
European nations such as France emphasize that a false Iraqi declaration alone should not be a pretext for war.
While the Bush administration formally shares this reading of the U.N. resolution, hard-liners on the president's team are likely to renew their case for toppling Saddam.
Indeed, some conservatives see the declaration as the last chance for some time for Bush to implement his policy of "regime change" in Iraq, because inspections could drag on for months.
The administration has had a fundamental choice between pursuing regime change or using the U.N. diplomatic machinery, and "so far, they've tried to straddle both," said Kenneth Adelman, a member of the advisory Defense Policy Board and former Reagan administration official.
If Sunday passes and Blix sends dozens more inspectors into Iraq as planned before Christmas, "you can almost kiss regime change good-bye" for a year or more, Adelman said.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.