Thursday, October 7, 2004

Saddam Hussein’s goal through the 1990s and until the 2003 U.S. invasion was to end U.N. sanctions on Iraq, while working covertly to restore the country’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction, a report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector says.

“Saddam wanted to re-create Iraq’s WMD capability — which was essentially destroyed in 1991 — after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized, but probably with a different mix of capabilities,” the report said.

Charles A. Duelfer told the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony yesterday that “Saddam sought to sustain the requisite knowledge base to restart the program eventually.”

In the interim, Mr. Duelfer said, Saddam hoped to keep “the inherent capability to produce such weapons as circumstances permitted in the future.”

Mr. Duelfer said that officials with the Iraq Survey Group continue to receive a “stream of reports about hidden WMD locations” and in one recent case turned up a “partially filled nerve agent container from a 122 mm rocket.”

But, “like others recovered, [it] was from old pre-1991 stocks,” he said, adding “despite these reports and finds, I still do not expect that militarily significant WMD stocks are cached in Iraq.”

Mr. Duelfer was appointed chief weapons inspector in January after then-chief David Kay made headlines by asserting that prewar assessments of Iraq had been “almost all wrong.”

The White House did not endorse Mr. Kay’s findings at the time, saying the Iraq Survey Group had not completed its post-war search for weapons. Several senior Bush-administration officials, meanwhile, had touted Saddam’s weapons “stockpiles” as a central reason for invading.

Mr. Duelfer yesterday said inspectors still cannot “definitively say whether or not WMD materials were transferred out of Iraq before the war,” although he stressed how Iraq’s ability to produce them weakened under the U.N. sanctions implemented after the 1991 Gulf war.

With Iraq’s economy badly damaged and U.N. sanctions, Mr. Duelfer’s report says, Saddam’s plans for a skeletal weapons program that could be mobilized quickly led him to pursue the needed materials through illegal and indirect channels.

Starting in 1997 and peaking in 2001, he developed a giant smuggling operation that hinged on the establishment of “a network of Iraqi front companies, some with close relationships to high-ranking foreign-government officials,” the report says.

Those officials, it says, “worked through their respective ministries, state-run companies and ministry-sponsored front companies to procure illicit goods, services and technologies for Iraq’s WMD-related, conventional arms, and/or dual-use goods programs.”

Syria was Iraq’s “primary conduit for illicit imports” from late 2000 until the start of the U.S. invasion last year, according to the report, which also maintains that the Iraqi Intelligence Service set up front companies to buy prohibited arms from a Syrian totaling $1.2 billion.

“The central bank of Syria was the repository of funds used by Iraq to purchase goods and materials both prohibited and allowed under U.N. sanctions,” the report says.

Totaling nearly 1,000-pages, the report includes a broad history of Saddam’s regime, how he operated and held power through the Iran-Iraq war and the first war with the United States.

Mr. Duelfer noted that “given the nature of Iraqi governance, one should not look for much of an audit trail on WMD.”

As a result, key findings on Iraq’s efforts to finance and procure weapons and delivery systems, are based largely on interviews with senior Ba’ath Party officials detained in Iraq.

For example, former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and others “answered questions in writing several times, providing information on both the former regime and the mindset of those who ran it,” according to the report.

Interviews with Saddam were conducted by a single “FBI person” and the “only thing” offered in exchange was a stake in shaping his legacy, according to an official familiar with the report.

Regarding nuclear weapons, Mr. Duelfer said that during the 12 years after the Persian Gulf war “Iraq’s ability to produce a weapon decayed” and that “the time for Iraq to build a nuclear weapon tended to increase for the duration of the sanctions.”

“Despite this decay,” he said. “Saddam did not abandon his nuclear ambitions.”

Regarding chemical weapons, the report outlines Saddam’s belief that the extensive use of such weapons and of long-range ballistic missiles was key to Iraq’s ability to avoid defeat in the eight-year war with Iran.

Mr. Duelfer also noted that Saddam “used chemical weapons for domestic purposes — in the late-80s against the Kurds and during the Shi’a uprisings after the 1991 war” — a point noted regularly by administration officials in justifying to critics the need to invade Iraq.

While Iraqi chemical-weapons activity “shifted from production to research and development of more potent and stabilized agents” after the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Duelfer said that when U.N. sanctions were on Iraq, Saddam sought to sustain the knowledge base to restart the program eventually.

“With the infusion of funding and resources following acceptance of the oil-for-food program, Iraq effectively shortened the time that would be required to re-establish [chemical weapon] production capacity,” Mr. Duelfer said. “By 2003, Iraq would have been able to produce mustard agent in a period of months and nerve agent in less than a year or two.”

Mr. Duelfer said it is “still difficult to rule” on whether Iraq had a mobile biological-weapons production effort, but he noted that Iraq secretly destroyed stocks of biological weapons in 1991 and 1992, after having denied to weapons inspectors that it had such a program.

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