US Accelerates Its Efforts to Build a Case Against Iraq


By Steven R. Weisman

New York Times
January 19, 2003

The Bush administration, concerned that a "smoking gun" may never be found in Iraq, is urgently assembling an argument that Baghdad's withholding of weapons information, and its refusal to make scientists freely available, should persuade American allies to back the use of force against Saddam Hussein.

Administration officials said that what some called Iraq's "pattern of noncooperation" with the United Nations' demand to disarm would be presented to the United Nations Security Council soon after Jan. 27, the date by which Hans Blix, the chief United Nations inspector for chemical and biological weapons, is to make his next report on Iraq.

The date for what one administration aide called the "moment of truth" is now more likely to be early or mid-February, officials said, rather than late February or March.

"At some point, we have to be honest with ourselves and ask whether Iraq is cooperating," an administration official said. "That will be the question to be discussed after we get the Blix report on Jan. 27."

Until now, officials say, access to Iraqi scientists has been impeded by the presence of "minders" from the government, and they predict that in the next two weeks the effort to interview experts alone will be stepped up.

The officials said that in spite of the wish by Mr. Blix and Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief inspector for nuclear weapons and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to continue the inspections process, the United States would move quickly to force an early conclusion by the Security Council.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has pointed out that although Mr. Blix and his team say they want more time, they also say they will do what the Council wants.

Mr. Powell and others have begun increasing their emphasis on the need to interview scientists without interference as a major cause for accusing Mr. Hussein of rejecting the disarmament demands in Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted last fall by a unanimous vote.

An official said the inspectors working in Iraq had recently focused on a list of 25 scientists whom they want to interview in or outside Iraq. Any obstruction by Iraq is likely to be considered a cause for action.

The United Nations inspectors had heard a report that a family member of one scientist on the list had been killed under suspicious circumstances, but that could not be confirmed, an official said.

Some administration officials say they have lost control of the public relations aspects of the inspection process, creating a popular perception that it is the job of the inspectors working alone to find direct evidence of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs. But in the view of the administration, the United Nations teams were never likely to find anything without the cooperation of the Iraqi authorities.

In Cyprus today, on the eve of a two-day visit to Baghdad, Mr. Blix said that Iraq had not given the inspectors "sufficient cooperation," and that he and Dr. ElBaradei planned to discuss with Iraqi officials gaps in the weapons declaration Iraq submitted last month.

Still, one piece of evidence did come this week, when the inspectors found 11 empty chemical warheads at an ammunition storage depot in southern Iraq. Aides to Mr. Bush immediately labeled them as evidence that Iraq had failed to disclose all it was obliged to in its declaration.

But many in the administration lament that the discovery of the empty warheads presented a misleading model of what the inspectors were trying to do. One official made the analogy to the Securities and Exchange Commission trying to audit a company's financial records, only to find that the company refused to hand them over.

Another official said: "This should not be about smoking guns. We may never find a smoking gun, though it sure would help. Rather than a site-by-site investigation, you need to look at this as an investigation to test certain principles — whether Iraq is truly cooperating or not."

Some officials acknowledge that basing a cause for military action against Iraq on its passive noncooperation, rather than concrete evidence of illegal weapons, is the least desirable way to make a case among allies in the Security Council.

Indeed, a Western diplomat close to the Council's deliberations said that because of the fixation on the "smoking gun" approach, there did not now exist support in the Council for authorizing force against Iraq.

"We are in a quandary," the diplomat said. "On the one hand, war probably cannot be avoided. On the other hand, without a smoking gun in the form of a discovery of weapons or a defector telling us about weapons, there is not support on the United Nations Security Council for going to war."

Some diplomats also worry that if the inspectors were actually to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or to locate a scientist confessing to the development of such weapons, it may be harder rather than easier to justify a war against Iraq. Such a development would be seen as a justification for prolonging the inspections process, they say.

Timing remains urgent, many officials say, noting that despite the contention of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others that the American military can fight at any time, military leaders say in private that a war in the heat of the summer would be difficult to wage.

An administration official said that in addition to pressing Mr. Blix on the inspections, and on interviewing Iraqi scientists, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, had also been increasing pressure on the Central Intelligence Agency to identify scientists to interview.

A leading Arab-language newspaper in London, Al Sharq Al Awsat, reported in December that based on "Iraqi sources" and charges by Iraqi diplomats, it was apparent that at least three top Iraqi weapons experts had been "subjected to pressures and offered financial incentives" to defect or cooperate with American intelligence officials.

American officials have declined to comment on the Iraqi charges.

Continuing the huge buildup of forces in the region, Mr. Rumsfeld signed more deployment orders this weekend, readying two more aircraft carriers to sail within striking distance of Iraq and calling up an undisclosed number of reservists, Pentagon and military officials said.

The new deployment order covers the Theodore Roosevelt, now in Atlantic waters off the East Coast, and the Abraham Lincoln, which is now near Australia, officials said. Already in waters near Iraq, the carrier Harry S. Truman is sailing in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Constellation is in the Persian Gulf.

Officials said Mr. Rumsfeld was still considering whether to send the carrier Kitty Hawk from Japan toward Iraq. During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, six carriers were sent for the attack on Iraq.

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