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A Review of the Evidence

Some prewar allegations about Iraq's weapons now appear overstated or false. Charges about human rights violations have been borne out.

June 15, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Last October in Cincinnati, President Bush delivered what could stand as the most concise summary of why the United States might go to war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime, he said, "possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism, and practices terror against its own people."

Today, more than a month after Bush declared that the United States and its allies had "prevailed" in the war against Hussein, there still is no consensus over whether the threat was as great as described.

A careful review of the evidence marshaled by the Bush administration and the staff of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the months leading up to the war suggests that some of the claims were overstated, others have been proved wrong, and still others -- particularly those involving Hussein's human rights abuses against his own people -- have been amply validated.

But the charges that many found the most troubling, those involving Hussein's alleged production of chemical and biological weapons, remain largely unsupported. As a rule, the more specific the claim, the more likely it is to have been debunked, or at least called into question. Factories cited by the administration have been inspected and found to be clean; evidence that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from an African country was found to be based on a forgery.

Since the war, the administration has subtly shifted its rhetoric against Hussein's fallen government, with Bush even moving away from the claim -- made repeatedly and vehemently -- that Iraq was actively producing and stockpiling chemical and biological weapons, saying instead that it "had a weapons program."

The failure of the United States and its allies to come up with undisputed proof that Iraq was a storehouse of dangerous, illegal weapons has become political fodder for opponents of Bush and Blair as well as Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whose government also supplied troops for the war. In this country, some members of Congress have called for an investigation of the intelligence that underpinned the administration's drive to war. Senior Bush administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, have continued to predict that they will be vindicated and have counseled patience while teams of weapons hunters scour Iraq.

But there also has been an effort to downplay the issue, with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz noting in a recent interview in Vanity Fair magazine that the administration had stressed unconventional weapons before the war "for bureaucratic reasons," when in fact they were just one of several reasons to attack Iraq.

In an interview with The Times last week, a senior administration official spoke of "connecting the dots" and uncovering weapons programs but repeatedly stopped short of saying any weapons would be found.

"I believe we will put together a picture that will be quite specific," the official said. "But let me ask you something: Is a capacity to put together precursors into a chemical weapon simply a program? Or is that a weapon?"

The charges against Iraq predate the current administration. Well after Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, went to war against Iraq in 1991, President Clinton accused Hussein of thwarting U.N. inspections so Iraq could continue to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Clinton ordered U.S. forces to bomb Iraq in December 1998 after declaring that Hussein not only possessed unconventional weapons, but "has used them -- not once, but repeatedly.... I have no doubt today that, left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again." Operation Desert Fox, as the Pentagon called that mission, lasted four days and hit nearly 100 targets, including suspected chemical or biological weapons sites.

The current Bush administration began escalating its rhetoric about Iraq not long after the Sept. 11 attacks. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush included Hussein's government in an "axis of evil" with Iran and North Korea.

"The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade," Bush charged then. And he warned: "America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security."

The rhetorical assault picked up last August. Its arguments fell into several categories: that Iraq was a champion of terrorism, that it stockpiled chemical and biological weapons, that it sought to produce nuclear weapons, that it maintained illegal missiles, and that it committed wholesale violations of human rights against its people. All but the last of these were portrayed as threats against the United States.

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