WASHINGTON — Some of President Bush's top advisers, who had hoped the war in Iraq would be the turning point in the battle against terrorism and the centerpiece of the president's re-election campaign, fear it is instead becoming a political, diplomatic and military mess.
"The postwar period in Iraq is messy. We haven't found what we said we'd find there and there are unpleasant questions about assumptions we made and intelligence we had," said one senior official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "If many more months go by and our troops are still there, the Iraqis are still fighting each other and us and we still haven't found any WMD (weapons of mass destruction), there will be hell to pay."
The situation in Iraq could rebound quickly, especially if U.S. forces can restore electric power, water, health care and other services to the population, revive the nation's battered oil industry and unite the country's feuding Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis and tribesmen into some sort of civil authority.
But for now, U.S. troops in Iraq are becoming the targets of anger and ambushes instead of being greeted as liberators, as some Pentagon officials had expected. Twelve Americans died this week from enemy action and accidents, and some of their civilian leaders now privately admit that the relatively small force that quickly overwhelmed the Iraqi military is too small to restore order in a nation the size of California.
The U.S. attempt to hand the country over to an Iraqi civilian administration isn't faring much better, and Bush is expected to meet with L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq, in Qatar on Wednesday to discuss overhauling the American administration in Baghdad for the second time in a month. A top U.S. official on Friday said that Bremer's predecessor, retired Army Gen. Jay Garner, had failed, adding: "We lost a month because of Garner."
A growing number of critics in Congress and some within the government now suspect that a third problem, potentially the most serious of all, helps to explain the unexpected military and political difficulties.
Much of the administration's public rationale for the war, and much of its planning for both the war and its aftermath, these critics say, appears to have been based on fabricated or exaggerated intelligence that was fed to civilian officials in the Pentagon by Iraqi exiles who were eager for the United States to oust Saddam Hussein.
The exiles' intelligence network, intelligence officials said, told Pentagon officials that, among other things, many Iraqi Shiites would welcome American troops as liberators, that some key Iraqi generals would surrender their entire units and that Saddam had sent a key operative to work with a small militant Islamic group, Ansar al Islam, that had ties to al-Qaida.
Officials in the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department all warned repeatedly that past experience with the exiles, led by Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, indicated that the intelligence they provided was unreliable at best.
But Iraqi defectors produced by the INC and other intelligence supplied by the group got a ready hearing in two important places: a special intelligence group set up by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, and The New York Times.
The INC, said U.S. intelligence officials, bypassed the skeptics in the CIA and DIA and fed the same information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida to both places so Pentagon officials would confirm what the newspaper was hearing and the nation's most powerful newspaper would confirm what the Pentagon was hearing.
An internal Times e-mail reported by The Washington Post said Chalabi "has provided most of the front-page exclusives on WMD to our paper" and added that a team of U.S. troops searching for chemical and biological weapons in Iraq was "using Chalabi's intell (intelligence) and document network for its own WMD work."
Doubts about the administration's assertions that Saddam had hidden stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and established ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization have been growing almost daily since the war ended, as U.S. troops have failed to find either any weapons or any ties to terrorism.
The senior Marine general in Iraq said Friday that extensive searches have failed to locate any of the chemical weapons that U.S. intelligence had warned the Iraqis might use.
"It was a surprise to me then—it remains a surprise to me now—that we have not uncovered weapons, as you say, in some of the forward dispersal areas," Lt. Gen. James Conway, the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told reporters at the Pentagon in a video teleconference.
"Believe me, it's not for lack of trying. We've been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, but they're simply not there," Conway said.
Bush, however, speaking to a Polish television network in advance of a visit to Poland on Friday and Saturday, insisted that: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories. . . . And we'll find more weapons as time goes on. But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, we found them."
CIA officials on Wednesday said U.S. troops in Iraq found two mobile laboratories that analysts concluded were intended to make biological weapons, but they said the labs contained no evidence that the Iraqis had actually produced such weapons.
In an interview for the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a leading proponent of the war in Iraq, cast some doubt on whether administration officials were convinced that Iraq had secret stocks of nerve gas and anthrax, or whether they merely seized on the issue as a way to muster public and political support for the war.
"The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason," Wolfowitz said, according to a text of the interview released by the Pentagon.
Another senior official, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said that Wolfowitz's remark was accurate: CIA and State Department analysts, he said, sharply disputed the Pentagon's claim that Saddam had forged links to al-Qaida, but everyone agreed that Iraq probably had not destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons.
However, the official said Wolfowitz's "choice of words, if it's being reported accurately, is probably one that Paul now regrets."
Another top official, who also agreed to speak only without attribution because, he said, "talking out of school is frowned upon at the White House," said White House political director Karl Rove and other officials were displeased by the report of Wolfowitz's remarks because they feared it would undermine public support for the war.
In Europe, the account of Wolfowitz's remarks revived suspicions that the administration had deliberately misled the world about Iraq just as Bush headed to Poland, Russia and an economic summit meeting in France.
"The charge of deception is inescapable," said Germany's largest newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.