WASHINGTON—Where are Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? That's the most pressing question facing the United States one month after the war to disarm Saddam Hussein began.
"If we never find any chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, how do we say `oops'?" said one senior administration official.
The United States has yet to substantiate repeated claims that Saddam Hussein had massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and a program to build a nuclear bomb—claims the Bush administration relied on to justify pre-emptive military action in Iraq without the United Nations' blessing.
The weapons hunt is critical to improving the United States' already shaky credibility in the Middle East, and rebuilding relations with former allies that opposed the war. So far, the hunt has turned up only false alarms.
A senior Pentagon official said none of the more than two dozen sites searched for banned weapons "have turned up the real goods yet."
Arms control experts have grown increasingly critical of the slow progress. International critics say the failure to find Saddam's supposed deadly arsenal raises questions about the Bush administration's motives for going to war.
Responding to mounting political pressure here and abroad, the United States has intensified efforts to uncover chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs in Iraq.
The Pentagon has equipped thousands of troops, technicians, intelligence analysts and military and civilian scientists with mobile laboratories. U.S. forces—including elite Delta and Navy SEAL teams—are scouring palaces, regime headquarters and government officials' residences. The FBI is reviewing regime documents for clues. U.S. officials have offered up to $200,000 in rewards.
The Pentagon must search at least 1,000 suspected storage and manufacturing sites. Officials caution that ferreting out weapons dispersed and hidden by Saddam's regime in a country the size of California could take as long as a year.
"We're looking for stuff that is clearly hidden quite skillfully," the senior Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But (intelligence operatives) seem to think it's just a matter of time."
Arms control specialists are not convinced the hunt will yield substantial—or any—caches of weapons. Many experts expect that weapons of mass destruction will be found, but perhaps not in the quantities that the Bush administration suggested could be hidden away.
"It's too early to come to any definitive conclusion," said Jonathan Tucker, a former weapons inspector who is a senior fellow at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace. "Their (the Iraqis') behavior during the (U.N.) inspections process suggests to me they had something to hide, that they were probably harboring prohibited weapons. But whether they had weapons on the scale the Bush administration alleged remains unclear."
Not finding any illegal weapons or their production facilities would raise serious questions about the reliability of American intelligence and could spur charges of political overreaching.
"We'd pay a price in terms of our political influence," said Robert Galluci, dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. "Over time, credibility accounts for a great deal and to some degree this would diminish our effectiveness particularly in the Arab world."
In one intelligence fiasco, the CIA put forward documents it said showed Iraq had attempted to buy uranium oxide, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, from Niger. The documents turned out to be crude forgeries that a diplomat from Niger sold to Italian officials.
Arms control experts fear weapons materials and scientists may have slipped out of Iraq. They say it is critical that the United States account for all of Iraq's missing weapons—from tons of chemical agent production materials to liters of anthrax—to make sure none of it has fallen into the wrong hands.
"We could face a new round of terrorism either against ourselves or against friends and allies as these weapons move through the global terrorist network," said former weapons inspector David Kay.
Such concerns have prompted former inspectors to call for the United States to bring in the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency to help search for Saddam's alleged forbidden weapons. U.N. inspectors were charged with making sure Iraq complied with resolutions that prohibited the possession of chemical, biological and nuclear arms after the 1991 Gulf War.
The U.N. Security Council will meet next week to discuss resuming inspections in Iraq. Last week the Pentagon enlisted American and British former inspectors to aid in the search.
The familiarity of current and former U.N. inspectors with Iraqi weapons programs would speed the search and would help insulate U.S. troops from charges they planted any chemical or biological agents they may find, former inspectors say.
In an interview with Knight Ridder, Jayantha Dhanapala, the United Nations Under Secretary for Disarmament Affairs, said U.S.-led forces should step aside and allow the United Nations to complete the work it started. He also argued that the United Nations must independently verify any discovery of illicit weapons.
"We haven't seen any smoking gun yet," Dhanapala said. "The jury's still out. We can't rule it out and we can't rule it in."
At a meeting with Pentagon employees on Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. forces would find weapons when Iraqis led them to them.
Interviewing scientists and military officers and gaining access to regime records are critical steps in uncovering weapons that may have been stashed in hospitals, mosques, universities and underground facilities, Kay said.
Arms control specialists worry about biological weapons, which can easily be smuggled in small but lethal quantities.
Of grave concern are hundreds of missing Iraqi scientists. About 100 of them have "considerable expertise and an overview of the entire program," Tucker said.
Last week U.S. forces raided the home of one of Saddam's top weapons specialists, Rahib Taha, seizing documents but not Taha, known as "Dr. Germ." "Individuals like Taha have expertise that other states or terrorists are willing to pay for," Tucker said.
Two top Iraqi scientists have surrendered. Arms control experts say U.S. forces should find mid-level scientists as well.
The Bush administration should set up a science and technology center in Baghdad similar to the ones set up in Moscow and Kiev after the Cold War so that scientists can find well-paid civilian work, Tucker said.
Now that major combat operations have ceased, troops have begun the "real heavy-duty work" of inspecting sites suspected of housing weapons of mass destruction, U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said.
"We're just in the earliest stages of that," Brooks said. "It's very much putting together pieces of a puzzle, one piece at a time."
Some arms control specialists agree and call for patience. "A significant search had to wait until the hostilities were over and some degree of normalcy and stability returned," said Michael Moodie, president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute. "Now is when the serious searching begins."
(Knight Ridder correspondents Joyce M. Davis in Washington and Peter Smolowitz in Qatar contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.