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The Dallas Morning News September 28, 2002

Experts questions strength of evidence against Iraq

By Jim Landers

WASHINGTON _ The debate over war with Iraq is shifting from "why" to "why now?"

Recent U.S. and British white papers, along with reports from private arms-control experts, describe at length Saddam Hussein's history of brutality toward his neighbors and his people, his defiance of a decade of U.N. resolutions and his pursuit of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons.

Most alarming, the British government says Iraq could launch biological and chemical warheads within 45 minutes.

President Bush and a British think tank have said Iraq could put together a nuclear bomb within months if it finds a willing seller of weapons-grade uranium. "The danger to our country is grave. The danger to our country is growing," President Bush said Thursday.

Others question whether the evidence in hand is strong enough to warrant military action without the support of the United Nations.

"It's a question of what's the sense of urgency here and how soon would we need to act unilaterally?" Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander, asked the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. "So far as any of the information that's been presented, there is nothing that indicates that in the immediate next hours, next days, that there's going to be nuclear-tipped missiles put on launch pads to go against our forces or our allies in the region."

Some say the evidence argues for a resumption of U.N. inspections and disarmament rather than preparations for war.

"These are allegations, not facts," said Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi oil and security analyst based in London. "Should Saddam go? Yes, but there's ways of doing things. . . . I'm not sure there's going to be a war, especially if he lets the inspectors back in. If he does not resist, there won't be grounds for attack. You are dealing with a tyrant, but at the end of the day he's very clever about maintaining his power."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this summer that evidence of a nuclear-armed Iraq or evidence linking Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would justify war immediately.

Those have been two of the most ambiguous aspects of the public debate about the Iraqi regime's behavior.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice this week asserted there have been several contacts between al-Qaida and Baghdad, though they stopped short of asserting that Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the White House white paper released with Bush's speech to the United Nations makes no mention of Iraqi contacts with al-Qaida. Neither does British Prime Minister Tony Blair's 55-page intelligence report.

Nuclear weapons reports also are at odds. British reports from the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the government's intelligence community contradict each other about Iraq's nuclear capability.

The institute estimates that Hussein could assemble a bomb within months if he got weapons-grade uranium.

British intelligence concluded that current U.N. sanctions block Iraq from building a bomb. Even a breakdown of sanctions and willing foreign suppliers of bomb-making material, their report concluded, would put Iraq no closer than one to two years to a bomb.

John Pike, an intelligence analyst who runs the Web site www.globalsecurity.org, said the case against Hussein is out there but has yet to be articulated by the Bush administration. "They're doing a pretty crummy job, public diplomacy job, of making the case," he said. "I assume we've seen only a small fraction of what they could release."

The reports about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction rely heavily on the findings of U.N. inspectors who were last in Iraq in 1998. The findings about recent activities focus on new industrial plants that could be used for either peaceful or military purposes and intelligence from defectors whose credibility divides analysts.

Former CIA analyst and national security aide Kenneth Pollack, who urges a U.S. invasion to overthrow Hussein, said reports throughout the last year alleging Iraqi ties to the Sept. 11 attacks, anthrax-laced letters and an al-Qaida enclave in northern Iraq weren't helpful.

"There's no smoking gun in any of the reports. Nobody has a smoking gun on Saddam," said Pollack, who is research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy with the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "But when you look at the evidence, it does start to paint a compelling picture. Any prosecutor will tell you most of his convictions are built on circumstantial evidence."

Former U.N. inspector Scott Ritter said the evidence is flimsy and argues for a return of U.N. inspectors rather than war.

"Where's the urgency? Where's the threat?" he asked.

Ritter said his own findings about Iraq's weapons, published in a book called Endgame, "were even more damning than the British and U.S. white papers."

"There's nothing in these white papers of substantive fact," he said. "My personal assessment is that Iraq has done nothing to reconstitute its weapons programs. But right now, it frankly doesn't matter what Scott Ritter thinks. Iraq says they will allow inspectors back in with unfettered access. Those inspectors are pretty darn good forensic detectives."

Some of the intelligence marshaled against Iraq has come from Iraqi defectors, including former weapons program scientists and top intelligence officers. Many were brought out of Iraq by the London-based Iraqi National Congress, which has lobbied vigorously for U.S. help in overthrowing Mr. Hussein.

Despite their motivation, Pollack said, the Iraqi National Congress defectors have delivered "very important information" about Iraq's weapons programs. Ritter, on the other hand, said most defector intelligence has proved wrong.

"In seven years as a weapons inspector, we were fed this same type of intelligence, and 98 percent of the time it turned out to be wrong," he said.

The British report saying that biological and chemical weapons could be ready to launch within 45 minutes would have to be based on a defector to have any credibility, Pike said.

"Is it reasonable to assume the Iraqis have chemical weapons that can be used on relatively short notice? Yes," he said. "But unless they have a defector who they believe, who told them his weapons drill required getting it out of a storage bunker and into an artillery tube within 45 minutes, I don't know how they came up with that. It sounds exciting, like they have a stockpile on hair-trigger alert, but I was not able to attribute anything to that."

Better intelligence from satellite photos, communications intercepts and other sources could make the case stronger, Pike said, but it hasn't been released.

"None of this goes to the fundamental question: Why do we need to blow them up right now rather than further down the road?" he asked. "That's the one where I think the administration is trying to make things a little bit clearer than the truth."

Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service