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Report on U.S. Search for Iraqi Weapons Possible Next Week

September 18, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — David Kay, the CIA special advisor leading the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, headed home to Washington from Baghdad on Wednesday and is expected to deliver a long-awaited progress report as early as next week, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

The interim report by Kay, a former United Nations nuclear inspector, will be the first summary of efforts that he and his investigators have made to substantiate the Bush administra- tion's repeated claims that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, before the war, had secretly produced as much as 500 tons of chemical weapons and thousands of gallons of deadly biowarfare agents.

No such stockpiles have been found in the nearly six months since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq. U.S. officials said the Iraq Survey Group's findings are more likely to highlight evidence of planning to reconstitute unconventional weapons programs on short notice, as well as long-range plans to develop and build such weapons if U.N. sanctions on the sale of dual-use items to Iraq were lifted.

In a radio interview broadcast Wednesday, Hans Blix, former chief United Nations weapons inspector, gave one possible explanation for the failure to find chemical or biological weapons. Blix said he was increasingly convinced that Saddam Hussein secretly destroyed most of his poison gas and germ weapons shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"I'm certainly more and more to the conclusion that Iraq has, as they maintained, destroyed almost all of what they had in the summer of 1991," Blix told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Blix, who headed the U.N. inspection and disarmament effort in Iraq for three years until his retirement last summer, said he now thinks "it's unlikely that anything will be found by the 1,400 U.S.-led weapons hunters in Iraq. Maybe they'll find some documents of interest," he said.

Blix said he believed that Hussein may have sought to convince the U.N. that he had retained weapons of mass destruction, even if he had destroyed his stockpiles, in an effort to deter a potential attack. "I mean, you can put up a sign on your door, 'Beware of the dog,' without having a dog," Blix said.

Former U.N. weapons inspectors and other experts had a mixed response to Blix's suggestion that Hussein destroyed his chemical and biological weapons more than a decade ago. Last spring, Blix told the U.N. Security Council he "presumed" that Iraq still maintained illicit weapons.

"It's logical because these things have a limited shelf life," said Jonathan Tucker, a former bioweapons inspector who now is a senior researcher at the Monterey Institute's nonproliferation center. Tucker said Iraqi scientists were unable to produce stabilized forms of most nerve gases or germ weapons.

"I don't think anyone questions that Iraq was maintaining a capability to produce these weapons," Tucker added. "The question is whether they maintained a strategic reserve of these weapons."

Greg Theilmann, former head of proliferation and military affairs at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said Blix's shift "seems very significant" because U.S. officials assumed that Iraq was keeping illicit weapons "because of our inability to verify their destruction. Maybe they [the Iraqis] didn't want to let us prove they had been destroyed."

Bob Baer, a former CIA operative who worked in northern Iraq in the 1990s, said he also believed U.S. intelligence misread Hussein's intentions. "There was no real evidence of these arms," he said. "No defector came out who could prove anything. Nothing was ever picked up by satellite photography. It was just assumed that he kept this stuff."

But another former U.N. inspector, who asked not to be identified, said Blix's comment "makes no sense" because U.N. inspectors repeatedly sought in the 1990s to confirm Iraq's claims that it had unilaterally destroyed various weapons and equipment.

"Most of these claims couldn't be verified," he said. "It wasn't just about a lack of information. There was usually an unresolvable conflict between what we were told and what we knew."

Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said Blix was engaging in "pure speculation." But he said Kay's initial report would not settle the issue.

"There are likely to be major gaps that we will never account for because so many records were never kept or destroyed," he said.

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