With War in Iraq over, Where Are the Weapons?

Article excerpt

ONE MONTH AFTER President George W. Bush's May 1 declaration of an end to major combat operations in Iraq, U.S. forces are continuing their search for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons but have so far failed to make any significant discoveries. The future of UN weapons inspections in Iraq remains uncertain.

Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told the House International Relations Committee during a May 15 hearing that the United States has searched about 20 percent of approximately 600 known weapons of mass destruction sites, warning that the process "will take months, and perhaps years."

Undersecretary of Defense Stephen Cambone told reporters during a May 7 briefing that the United States was sending an additional 2,000 personnel to Iraq to augment search efforts. The personnel will comprise the Iraq Survey Group, tasked with finding prohibited weapons. Cambone emphasized the importance of interviewing knowledgeable Iraqi officials and the evaluation of documentary evidence.

Explanations for the failure to find weapons vary. Administration officials have previously attributed the lack of discoveries to Iraq's skill at concealing weapons, the need to interview scientists knowledgeable about Iraq's weapons programs, and the possibility that Iraq might have destroyed prohibited weapons or transferred them to another country. (See ACT, May 2003.)

U.S. officials continue to assert that the coalition forces will locate chemical or biological weapons in Iraq. During a May 16 interview with Russian television, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Baghdad's submission of an incomplete declaration about its prohibited weapons programs to the UN Security Council as evidence that the regime had been hiding such weapons.

Security Council Resolution 1441 required Iraq to submit a "currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects of its [weapons of mass destruction] programmes." Iraq turned over a 12,000-page declaration to UN officials in Baghdad last December, but it contained little useful information and left many questions unanswered.

The most important weapons-related find has been the discovery of two trailers that U.S. officials believe were built to produce biological weapons agents. The first trailer was found April 19, and the second was discovered May 9, U.S. officials said. The second trailer did not appear to have been completed.

Powell told the Security Council February 5 that Iraq was using mobile biological laboratories as part of a larger effort to conceal its prohibited weapons programs.

U.S. experts say the trailers "appear to have had no purpose but to produce biological agents, and that they are . . .almost identical, in some respects," to the vehicles Powell described, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated in a May 21 press briefing. Powell said in a press briefing that same day that U.S. experts do not know whether the trailers were used to produce biological agents because they "have been cleaned" with disinfectants and experts "can't find actual germs on them."

Role for the IAEA and the UN?

Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are planning to return to Iraq, according to a May 23 agency press statement. The United States agreed to let the inspectors return following repeated calls from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. Agency spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said the inspectors are planning to return "before the end of the week," according to a May 26 Associated Press article.

Expressing deep concern about press reports indicating that civilians have been looting nuclear sites, ElBaradei called for the United States to "allow IAEA experts to return to Iraq" in a May 19 statement. He indicated that he had warned the United States on April 10 of the "need to secure the nuclear material stored at Tuwaitha"-Iraq's nuclear research center-and provided Washington with the "information about the nuclear material, radioactive sources, and nuclear waste in Iraq. …