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Iraq didn't pose weapons threat at time of invasion, U.S. inspector says

WASHINGTON—Contrary to what the Bush administration said, Saddam Hussein didn't have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons or the capability to produce them, and his nuclear weapons program was deteriorating when the United States led last year's invasion of Iraq, the top U.S. arms inspector said in a report Wednesday.

The report by Charles Duelfer refutes the heart of the administration's case for a pre-emptive war against Iraq in March 2003: that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and could make more and give them to terrorists.

Duelfer told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that Iraq had destroyed virtually all of its biological and chemical ordnance in 1991 and 1992, and that in later years U.N. inspections and sanctions forced Iraq to dismantle its programs to produce such munitions, as well as its nuclear weapons program.

Duelfer's findings, which cover more than 1,000 pages and are considered the most authoritative review of the subject, also contradict many of the specific allegations the president and other top administration officials made about Iraq's weapons programs in an effort to muster support for war.

Among them:

_ Iraq imported aluminum tubes for use in rockets, not to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, as some administration officials claimed.

_ Contrary to what President Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address, there's no evidence that Iraq tried to buy uranium overseas after 1991.

_ Two trailers that were found in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion were intended to make hydrogen for weather balloons, not biological weapons, as a CIA paper that the administration publicized widely alleged.

_ Most of the detailed information an Iraqi defector gave the administration and news organizations about mobile biological weapons facilities disguised as milk and yogurt trucks was wrong, and there's no evidence that Iraq had such facilities.

Committee Democrats seized on Duelfer's report to criticize Bush, whose decision to go to war and pre-war justifications have become major issues in this year's presidential campaign.

Duelfer's report on the now-deposed dictator's weapons programs concluded 15 months of investigations by the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group and included interviews with Saddam.

The findings were in line with the preliminary assessment of Duelfer's predecessor, David Kay, who said when he resigned last December that "we were probably all wrong" about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction stockpiles.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, noted that not only had Duelfer not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but Duelfer also had found that international pressure before last year's invasion had succeeded in diminishing Saddam's weapons programs to the point that they weren't functioning.

"Those are stunning statements," Levin said, juxtaposing them against pre-war claims by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and could provide them to terrorists. "That is 180 degrees different from what the administration was saying prior to the war."

Committee Republicans focused on another set of findings: that Saddam had found ways around U.N. sanctions and intended to revive Iraq's weapons programs once the limitations become ineffective or were lifted.

Saddam had been aggressively evading U.N. efforts, including manipulating the United Nations' oil-for-food program to gain influence over foreign governments and cash for Iraq's military, Duelfer found. Saddam could've begun producing some chemical and biological weapons within months if Iraq were freed of international restraints.

"Sanctions were in free fall," Duelfer said.

Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., called the contradictions between intelligence agencies' pre-war assessments of Iraq's weapons capabilities and Duelfer's findings of no weapons stockpiles or production capabilities a "cause for concern." Yet invading Iraq and ousting Saddam was the right move given the Iraqi ruler's behavior and intentions, he said.

Saddam's defiance of U.N. weapons inspections—even when he didn't have the banned weapons—demonstrated that the dictator had "an irrational mind that was a danger to the world," Warner said.

Pressed by Warner to say whether the world is better off with Saddam out of power and in U.S. custody, Duelfer responded that the deposed dictator "clearly had ambitions with respect to weapons of mass destruction. ... Analytically, the world is better off."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., countered that Bush didn't say before invading Iraq that he was taking America to war because of Saddam's intent or future capability to produce weapons of mass destruction.

"We were told that Saddam already had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and that he could acquire nuclear weapons in a year, which he could then give to terrorists," Kennedy said. "That's what we were told."

Investigators found that some nuclear scientists continued to engage in some work that might have had weapons applications, but they couldn't conclude that the scientists intended to make that connection. Overall, Iraq was years away from reviving its nuclear weapons effort, they found.

Investigators did discover that Saddam's regime had continued to operate small, clandestine laboratories to produce small quantities of some chemical and biological weapons, including ricin, a poison. The amounts involved were so small that they were likely intended for use in assassination attempts and not as weapons of mass destruction, investigators concluded.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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