WASHINGTON — With its claim that Iraq hid chemical, biological and nuclear weapons still unproven, the Bush administration is preparing to dispatch hundreds of additional investigators to step up the search -- and warning that it may take as long as a year to complete.
The Pentagon is assembling a "survey group" with more than 1,000 experts to interrogate Iraqi scientists and sift through recovered documents to broaden the search for weapons of mass destruction, officials said.
U.S. military units in Iraq have found no prohibited weapons since they invaded the country last month, although they have found gas masks, protective gear and antidote kits.
Some experts, both inside and outside the U.S. government, say Iraq's weapons programs may turn out to be significantly smaller than the Bush administration has portrayed them. And some say missteps in military units' initial searches of suspected weapons sites may have unwittingly destroyed useful evidence.
But administration officials say they are still certain that the regime of Saddam Hussein was developing and hiding weapons of mass destruction and that the evidence will eventually turn up. The U.S. contention that Hussein was holding chemical and biological weapons, and that he might give some of them to terrorists, was the administration's principal rationale for going to war.
"We are quite confident of our intelligence," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a television interview last week. "When the searching is all over and the evidence comes forward, this conflict will rest on a solid foundation of fact."
But officials also have begun an effort to lower public expectations, emphasizing how difficult it will be to find the evidence and how long it may take for the weapons to be found.
"It is not like a treasure hunt, where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week. "The [United Nations] inspectors didn't find anything, and I doubt that we will. What we will do is find the people who will tell us.
"It's going to take time to find anything because ... they buried things, they used underground tunnels ... [and] they took the documentation," Rumsfeld said.
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command who directed the war in Iraq, said recently that the weapons search could take as long as a year.
Officials maintain that they are not frustrated or disappointed that evidence of their principal charge against Hussein has not yet turned up, but they acknowledge that they will face mounting skepticism from critics of the war the longer the search takes.
The issue will come up this week in the U.N. Security Council, which has summoned chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to report on the situation. Blix clashed with the Bush administration before the war began when he argued that his inspections should be allowed to continue; since the war, he has noted acerbically that the United States has found no more evidence of Iraqi weapons than he did.
Blix said last week that he was ready to put a team of U.N. inspectors back in Iraq within two weeks.
"I think that the world would like to have a credible report on the absence or eradication of the program of weapons of mass destruction," he told the BBC.
The Bush administration says it is "too early" for U.N. inspectors to return to Iraq and expresses little interest in Blix's services. "This seems to be the week of voluntarism ... on the part of people who say they are willing to help get rid of Iraqi weapons, weapons that they weren't willing to admit were there before," a senior U.S. official said.
The administration isn't worried that critics may not find any U.S. discoveries credible without international monitors on the scene, the official said. "There will always be people who believe we never landed on the moon," he said. "Besides, it won't just be Americans. There will be Iraqi scientists talking about what they did too."
Part of the problem, U.S. officials say, is that the effort to find the weapons is only now getting underway in earnest.
Until now, the effort has been run through the 75th Exploitation Task Force, a unit of several hundred military and civilian experts that followed the Army and Marines into southern Iraq. But to interrogate scientists and scour documents all over the country, the Pentagon is only now assembling the full-scale Iraq Survey Group, which will include more than 1,000 experts in fields ranging from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to linguistics and conventional munitions.
Most of the team is still in the United States, waiting until travel in Iraq is safe, officials said.
"The 75th is sort of our advance organization, if you will," a member of the group said. "When the Iraq Survey Group stands up, it's going to be a much more capable organization."