U.S. Report Finds Iraq Was Minimal Weapons Threat in 2003

By DOUGLAS JEHL

New York Times

October 7, 2004

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 Iraq had essentially destroyed its illicit weapons capability within months after the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991, and its capacity to produce such weapons had eroded even further by the time of the American invasion in 2003, the top American inspector in Iraq said in a report made public today.

The report, by Charles A. Duelfer, said the last Iraqi factory capable of producing militarily significant quantities of unconventional weapons was destroyed in 1996. The findings amounted to the starkest portrayal yet of a vast gap between the Bush administration's prewar assertions about Iraqi weapons and what a 15-month postinvasion inquiry by American investigators concluded were the facts on the ground.

At the time of the American invasion, Mr. Duelfer concluded, Iraq had not possessed military-scale stockpiles of illicit weapons for a dozen years and was not actively seeking to produce them.

The White House portrayed the war as a bid to disarm Iraq of unconventional weapons, and had invoked images of mushroom clouds, deadly gases and fearsome poisons. But Mr. Duelfer concluded that even if Iraq had sought to restart its weapons programs in 2003, it could not have produced militarily significant quantities of chemical weapons for at least a year, and would have required years to produce a nuclear weapon.

"Saddam Hussein ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the gulf war," Mr. Duelfer said in his report, which added that American inspectors in Iraq had "found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program."

Hours before Mr. Duelfer's report was made public, President Bush appeared to try to deflate some the political impact of its core findings.

"After Sept. 11, America had to assess every potential threat in a new light," Mr. Bush said while campaigning in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "Our nation awakened to an even greater danger: the prospect that terrorists who killed thousands with hijacked airplanes would kill many more with weapons of mass murder."

"We had to take a hard look at every place where terrorists might get those weapons, and one regime stood out," Mr. Bush said. "The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein."

Mr. Duelfer presented his conclusions to Congress beginning with testimony at a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But his findings were described to reporters in advance of the testimony, although only on condition that they not be published until his afternoon appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, when the report was made public.

The three-volume report, totaling more than 900 pages, is viewed as the first authoritative attempt to unravel the mystery posed by Iraq during the crucial years between the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and the American-led war that began in 2003. It adds new weight to what is already a widely accepted view that the most fundamental prewar assertions made by American intelligence agencies about Iraq that it possessed chemical and biological weapons, and was reconstituting its nuclear program bore no resemblance to the truth.

Mr. Duelfer concluded that Mr. Hussein had made fundamental decisions, beginning in 1991, to get rid of Iraq's illicit weapons and accept the destruction of its weapons-producing facilities as part of an effort to end United Nations sanctions. But Mr. Duelfer argued that Mr. Hussein was also exploiting avenues opened by the sanctions, including the oil-for-food program, to lay the groundwork for a long-term plan to resume weapons production if sanctions were lifted.

Mr. Hussein "wanted to end sanctions while preserving the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction when sanctions were lifted," the report said. But the conclusion that Mr. Hussein had intended to restart his programs, the report acknowledged, was based more on inference than solid evidence. "The regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of W.M.D. after sanctions," it said, using the common abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction.

The report was based in part on the interrogation of Mr. Hussein in his prison cell outside of Baghdad. Mr. Duelfer said he had concluded that Mr. Hussein deliberately sought to maintain an ambiguity about whether Iraq possessed illicit weapons in a strategy aimed as much at Iran, with whom Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980's, as at the United States.

Mr. Duelfer's report said that American investigators had found clandestine laboratories in the Baghdad area used by the Iraqi Intelligence Service to conduct research and to test various chemicals and poisons, primarily for secret assassinations rather than to inflict mass casualties. It said those laboratories were active from 1991 to 2003.

Mr. Duelfer said in his report that Mr. Hussein never disclosed in the course of the interrogations what had become of Iraq's illicit weapons. He said that American investigators had appealed to the former Iraqi leader to be candid in order to shape his legacy, but that Mr. Hussein had not been forthcoming.

The report said that interviews with other former top Iraqi leaders had made clear that Mr. Hussein had left many of his top deputies uncertain until the eve of war about whether Iraq possessed illicit weapons. It said that Mr. Hussein had seemed to be most concerned about a possible new attack by Iran, whose incursions into Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 were fended off by Baghdad only with the use of chemical munitions fired on ballistic missiles.

Mr. Duelfer said in the report that Iraq had made a conscious effort to maintain the knowledge base necessary to restart an illicit weapons program. He said that Iraq had essentially put its biological program "on the shelf" after its last production facility, Al Hakam, was destroyed by United Nations inspectors in 1996, and could have begun to produce biological questions in as little as a month if it had restarted its weapons program in 2003.

But the report said there were "no indications" that Iraq had been pursuing such a course, and it reported "a complete absence of discussion or even interest in biological weapons" at the level of Mr. Hussein and his aides after the mid-1990's.

The report will almost certainly be the last complete assessment by the team led by Mr. Duelfer, which is known as the Iraq Survey Group. But Mr. Duelfer said that he and the 1,200-member team would continue their work in Iraq for the time being. He said the team had not completely ruled out the possibility that some Iraqi weapons might have been smuggled out to a neighboring country, such as Syria.

The report did reverse an earlier judgment by the Central Intelligence Agency, saying the Mr. Duelfer's team had concluded that mysterious trailers found in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 could not have been used as part of any biological warfare program. The trailers' manufacturers "almost certainly designed and built the equipment exclusively for the generation of hydrogen," upholding claims by Iraqi officials that linked the trailers to weather balloons used for artillery practice.