WASHINGTON—In growing detail, Bush administration officials are presenting their case that Iraq retains a hidden and fearsome arsenal of nerve gases, blister-producing chemicals, anthrax and other lethal agents.
They say Saddam Hussein has built mobile killer germ laboratories and may be scouring Africa for uranium to construct a nuclear bomb. They add that thousands of Iraqi "anti-inspectors" are thwarting U.N. weapons monitors, burying weapons and documents in lakes, under mosques and on farms.
Even as a "smoking gun" eludes U.N. inspectors, and the Bush administration inches toward an invasion of Iraq, a growing number of experts accept that Saddam has been deceiving the world about his arsenal.
In contrast, opinion polls show that many Americans are still deeply wary of going to war against Iraq. Some say the administration is banging the war drum without providing sufficient proof that Saddam should be toppled now. Others flatly disbelieve administration charges alleging hidden Iraqi munitions.
Seeking to address those concerns, the Bush administration and the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair have offered a series of public assessments in recent days that Iraq is hiding stockpiles of banned weaponry, flouting United Nations demands that it disarm.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said Thursday that Iraq has enough concentrated biological agents "to kill hundreds of millions" of people.
Wolfowitz, a chief hawk within the administration, dismissed the argument that the Bush administration should give U.N. weapons inspectors significantly more time to uncover Saddam's hidden arsenals. The U.N. inspections chief, Hans Blix, will issue a report on the team's work on Monday.
"It is not the job of inspectors to disarm Iraq," Wolfowitz said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It is Iraq's job to disarm itself."
Wolfowitz added: "It is quite unreasonable to expect a few hundred inspectors to search every potential hiding place in a country the size of France, even if nothing were being moved."
An eight-page White House report on Thursday said Iraq "has chosen to conceal and to lie" about its weapons to U.N. inspectors rather than to cooperate.
Administration officials have seized on the discovery by U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq last week of at least 12 empty warheads capable of carrying chemical payloads.
If empty Iraqi warheads were filled with sarin, a deadly nerve agent used by Japanese terrorists in 1995 that killed 12 Tokyo subway passengers and sickened thousands, "it would contain over 40,000 lethal doses," the White House report said.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a speech Tuesday that the discovery of those warheads "just raises a basic question: Where are the other 29,984? Because that's how many empty chemical warheads the U.N. Special Commission estimated (Saddam) had, and he's never accounted for."
Among the most unsettling public assertions of the Bush administration this week is that Saddam's regime has never accounted for 1.5 tons of a nerve gas known as VX. The lethal nerve agent causes acute muscular spasms and paralysis.
"This is an incredibly lethal toxin. If a microscopic amount touches your skin, it will quickly kill you," said Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The White House report said that if Iraq put VX gas in a warhead of a type that it is known to have manufactured, then launched it at a major city, it could kill up to 1 million people.
In addition to VX and sarin, Iraq has never provided credible evidence of the destruction of "550 mustard gas filled artillery shells and 400 biological weapon-capable aerial bombs," the White House said in its report.
In a report on Iraq's arsenal, the CIA said in October that Baghdad had scaled up chemical and biological weapons production since 1998, when U.N. weapons inspectors left the country after being repeatedly denied access to some installations.
The CIA said Iraq "probably has stockpiled a few hundred metric tons" of chemical warfare agents, and that its offensive biological warfare program is "larger and more advanced" than during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, sparked when Iraqi soldiers invaded oil-rich Kuwait.
Saddam maintains large-scale production facilities, which include mobile laboratories, it said. "These facilities can evade detection, are highly survivable, and can exceed the production rates Iraq had prior to the Gulf war," the CIA added.
Echoing the CIA assessment, the British government said in a 51-page report on Sept. 24 that Iraqi scientists have learned how to stabilize nerve agents and other weapons for long-term storage.
"We know from intelligence that Iraq has continued to produce biological warfare agents," the British report says. Iraqi scientists retain equipment such as "fermenters, centrifuges, sprayer dryers and other equipment" needed for ongoing research and production, it said.
The British report said Iraq has revived a nuclear research program.
"In mid-2001, the (British Joint Intelligence Committee) assessed that Iraq had continued its nuclear research after 1998," the report said, adding that scientists had been recalled to the program and were trying to accumulate uranium to enrich into a nuclear weapon. "There is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The report added that Iraq had sought to acquire "a very large quantity (60,000 or more) of specialized aluminum tubes" needed to process uranium. Some analysts, however, said the tubes were intended to make conventional weapons.
Iraq maintains a variety of delivery systems for weapons, including bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers and perhaps small L-29 trainer jets converted into unmanned aerial vehicles, the CIA report said.
The British report said Iraq may have 20 or so medium-range Scud missiles left over from the Gulf War: "These missiles were either hidden from the U.N. as complete systems, or re-assembled using illegally retained engines and other components."
British intelligence concluded early last year that Iraq is boosting the ranges of two missiles, the solid-propellant Ababil-100 and the liquid-propellant al-Samoud, with a range over 120 miles, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, the report said.
"Iraq's missile programs employ hundreds of people," it added.
The major obstacle to providing a "smoking gun" about the various weapons programs, Wolfowitz said, is a huge concealment program run by Saddam's son, Qusay. His group, the Special Security Organization, oversees "thousands of personnel" to hide documents, sanitize inspection sites and spy on U.N. officials.
"Indeed, the `anti-inspectors' vastly outnumber the couple of hundred of U.N. personnel on the ground in Iraq," Wolfowitz said.
"We have multiple reports of the intensified efforts to hide documents" in places such as "private homes of low-level officials and universities," the White House report said, adding that U.S. officials believe some documents and weaponry is "concealed in lakes, relocated to agricultural areas and private homes, or hidden beneath mosques or hospitals."
If Saddam is toppled, the weaponry still may not be easy to find, one expert said.
"Even if the United States occupies Iraq with 100,000 troops, it could take months or years to find all the weapons of mass destruction," said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030123 IRAQ WEAPONS