A diminishing threat

Contradicting almost every assertion by the Bush administration about Saddam's capabilities, U.S. inspectors deliver their verdict: There were no WMD in Iraq.

By Julian Borger
Published October 7, 2004 1:48PM (EDT)

Saddam Hussein destroyed his last weapons of mass destruction more than a decade ago, and his capacity to build new ones had been dwindling for years by the time of the Iraq invasion, according to a comprehensive U.S. report released Wednesday. The report, the culmination of an intensive 15-month search by 1,200 inspectors from the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, concluded that Saddam had ambitions to restart at least chemical and nuclear programs once sanctions were lifted. However, concrete plans do not appear to have been laid down, let alone set in motion. Nor did Saddam issue direct verbal orders to develop weapons of mass destruction. The main evidence of his intentions is his own cryptic remarks, and the meaning his aides inferred from them.

The ISG conclusions, delivered to Congress yesterday, are badly timed for George W. Bush's reelection bid, as they starkly contradict his prewar claims as well as statements he has made on the campaign trail. Even in recent days the president has insisted that although Iraq had no WMD at the time of the war, it was a "gathering threat" that had to be confronted. But the ISG found that Saddam represented a diminishing threat.

However, Charles Duelfer, the head of the ISG and the report's chief author, said that by late 2001, when the international embargo on Iraq was tightened, it was clear sanctions would not have contained Saddam for much longer. Duelfer told a Senate committee yesterday that the Saddam regime "had made progress in eroding sanctions, and had it not been for Sept. 11, things would have taken a very different turn for the regime." He pointed out that the report was comprehensive but "not final," as a team of 900 linguists are still sifting through a mountain of documents. But Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector, added: "I still do not expect that militarily significant WMD stocks are hidden in Iraq."

Britain's Tony Blair said that the report showed Saddam was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction and had retained key scientists to do so. Blair said that the report showed that "the situation is far more complicated than many thought. Just as I have had to accept that the evidence now shows that there were not stockpiles of actual weapons ready to deploy, I hope others will have the honesty to accept that the report also shows that sanctions were not working. On the contrary, Saddam was doing his best to get round those sanctions."

Iraq had pesticide plants and other chemical facilities that could have been converted to the production of chemical weapons, the ISG found, but there was no clear evidence of such plans.

Meanwhile, Saddam appears to have lost interest altogether in biological weapons. The ISG "found no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW [biological warfare] program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes," the report concluded, adding that "there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the presidential level."

Iraq would therefore "have faced great difficulty in re-establishing an effective BW agent production capability." As far as making a nuclear bomb was concerned, Duelfer said, Saddam "was further away in 2003 than he was in 1991. So the nuclear program was decaying steadily."

Duelfer's team did find evidence that Saddam wanted to restart his weapons programs if the U.N. embargo on his country was lifted. However, none of that evidence was on paper. The primary source was the imprisoned dictator himself. According to Duelfer, Saddam saw WMD primarily as a counterbalance to Iran's programs. The ousted dictator reportedly told his interrogators "he would do whatever it took to offset the Iranian threat, making it clear he was referring to Iran's nuclear capability," Duelfer said. He suggested that only the ousted leader knew what his weapons plans were and that even close aides were uncertain whether Iraq had WMD or not.

The ISG report found that there had been no "identifiable group of WMD policy makers or planners separate from Saddam. Instead, his lieutenants understood WMD revival was his goal from their long association with Saddam and his infrequent but firm, verbal comments and directions to them."

In the 12 years between the first and second Gulf wars, however, it was clear that U.N. sanctions had been effective in persuading Saddam to disarm, an American official who helped compile the report said.

Duelfer said Saddam's "prime objective was the termination of U.N. sanctions on Iraq. And he weighed all policy actions and steps for their impact on this overarching objective." Saddam apparently believed WMD had stopped the U.S. from marching on Baghdad in 1991 and had prevented defeat by Iran.

A separate CIA report, leaked to the U.S. press this week, severely weakened the Bush claim of a link between Baghdad and al-Qaida. It found no clear evidence of Iraq's having harbored Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist believed to be behind many of the attacks in Iraq and now holding British hostage Kenneth Bigley.

In all, 1,625 U.S. and U.N. inspectors worked in Iraq for close to two years -- from November 2002 to September 2004 -- at a cost of over $1 billion. They searched nearly 1,700 sites.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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