WASHINGTON—Convinced that Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration is false, President Bush has settled on a high-risk strategy designed to unearth a "smoking gun" that proves Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The Bush strategy involves pressing the United Nations for aggressive inspections of a handful of sites where U.S. intelligence agencies suspect Iraq is hiding evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The inspectors would be armed with the latest U.S. intelligence data and, Washington hopes, will be able to interview Iraqi scientists associated with the sites who will be spirited out of that country.
Bush's policy is designed to bring the crisis with Iraq to a relatively quick resolution, avoiding months of haggling over the U.N. weapons inspections.
If the United States determines that Iraq lied in the weapons declaration it handed over on Dec. 7 and is attempting to deceive inspectors, it could push for an invasion to oust Saddam.
But the White House strategy faces several important obstacles.
Catching Iraq in a lie, something weapons inspectors were rarely able to do throughout the 1990s, is a "tall order," a State Department official acknowledged.
"The philosophy here ... is we're not going to get a long time, and we're not going to get more than one chance," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We can't hand Saddam a victory by crying wolf," he added.
Saddam, meanwhile, appears to have adopted his own strategy of dragging out the inspections process as long as possible in hopes of dividing the international community and deflecting U.S. war threats.
And other international powers, particularly France and Russia, would like to see the inspections process work, and are eager to avoid a conflict.
Highlighting Bush's dilemma is a new poll showing that Americans do not believe the president has made the case for war in Iraq.
A nationwide Los Angeles Times survey, released Tuesday, found that while a majority would still support a ground attack on Iraq, 72 percent said Bush has not provided enough evidence to justify a war.
Only 22 percent agreed that errors or omissions in the Iraqi weapons declaration alone would be enough to justify war, with most saying they wanted to see a pattern of Iraqi violations.
The Bush administration has concluded that Baghdad's claim that it no longer has any weapons of mass destruction is deceptive, officials said. They said the Iraqis failed to account for tons of chemical weapons ingredients and biological weapons materials declared missing by previous inspection teams that scoured Iraq from 1991 to 1998.
"There are problems with the declaration," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday.
Bush's top aides are still debating when to make the U.S. case public in detail and state what Washington plans to do next, the U.S. officials said.
Chief U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei are due to give the U.N. Security Council their initial assessment of the document on Thursday.
Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf met with Blix in New York on Tuesday in an apparent effort to determine Blix's judgment of the document.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States—have been reviewing the document since last week and have said they would not respond to it publicly until U.N. weapons inspectors have a chance to voice their opinions.
Inspectors have been combing through the document to remove sensitive information on weapons production, such as bomb-making recipes. The sanitized version was being distributed to the 10 elected council members of the Security Council late Tuesday.
The evolving White House strategy represents a compromise in the administration's internal debate. Hawks at the Pentagon and elsewhere argue that a false Iraqi declaration is enough to justify the use of force under U.N. resolutions, while others, notably at the State Department, say the weapons inspections process should be allowed to continue.
The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally on Iraq, has advised Washington that it must go beyond simply accusing Iraq of lying and provide enough evidence to win over international opinion, U.S. officials said.
Under the plans being drawn up, the CIA and other intelligence agencies are identifying gaps in the Iraqi weapons declaration and selecting perhaps a half-dozen facilities where they believe weapons work is continuing.
The sites targeted for aggressive inspection will be chosen on the basis of how solid U.S. intelligence data is and whether or not the equipment there is "dual use," meaning it has both civilian and military uses. Dual use sites are being ruled out, because Iraq can be expected to claim the sites are doing non-military work, the official said.
Washington will then urge U.N. weapons inspectors to arrive at the sites "in force," before Iraq can sanitize them of evidence of prohibited activity, he said.
The United States is also pressing Blix to begin interviews of Iraqi scientists outside the country, using the equivalent of a "U.N. subpoena" to demand that Baghdad make them available for questioning.
This course poses problems, too. Even if the scientists and their immediate families are taken out of Iraq, they may be unwilling to talk because of fear of Saddam's retribution against their extended families still in the country.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.