WASHINGTON — Contradicting the main argument for a war that has cost more than 1,000 American lives, the top U.S. arms inspector said Wednesday he found no evidence Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction after 1991. He also concluded Saddam Hussein’s ability to develop such weapons had dimmed — not grown — during a dozen years of sanctions before last year’s U.S.-led invasion.
Contrary to prewar statements by President Bush, Saddam did not have chemical and biological stockpiles when the war began and his nuclear capabilities were deteriorating, not advancing, said Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group.
But Duelfer also supports Bush’s argument that Saddam remained a threat. Interviews with the toppled leader and other former Iraqi officials made clear that Saddam still wanted to pursue weapons of mass destruction and hoped to revive his weapons program if U.N. sanctions were lifted.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Bush defended the decision to invade.
“There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks,” Bush said in a speech in Wilkes Barre, Pa. “In the world after Sept. 11, that was a risk we could not afford to take.”
But Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Duelfer’s findings undercut the two main arguments for war: That Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that he would share them with terrorists like al-Qaida.
“We did not go to war because Saddam had future intentions to obtain weapons of mass destruction,” Levin said.
He said he believed sanctions against Saddam — even though they appeared to work in part — were unsustainable long term.
On specific points, Duelfer said:
- Aluminum tubes suspected of being used for enriching uranium for use in a nuclear bomb were likely destined for conventional rockets and that there is no evidence Iraq sought uranium abroad after 1991. Both findings contradict claims made by Bush and other top administration officials before the war.
- It is unclear what happened to banned weapons produced before 1991 that Saddam had declared in the 1990s to the United Nations but were never accounted for. For example, Saddam declared having 550 155-millimeter artillery shells with mustard agents, but it’s not known what became of most of them. He said 53 “residual rounds” have been found and the others are not considered a significant threat.
- The likelihood of finding the stockpiles that the president spoke about before the war was “less than 5 percent.”
The former head of the U.N. weapons inspection team, Hans Blix, said: “Had we had a few months more (of inspections before the war), we would have been able to tell both the CIA and others that there were no weapons of mass destruction (at) all the sites that they had given to us.”
The report avoids direct comparisons with prewar claims by the Bush administration on Iraq’s weapons systems. But Duelfer largely reinforces the conclusions of his predecessor, David Kay, who said in January, “We were almost all wrong” on Saddam’s weapons programs.
Duelfer found that Saddam, hoping to end U.N. sanctions, gradually began ending prohibited weapons programs starting in 1991. But as Iraq started receiving money through the U.N. oil-for-food program, and as enforcement of the sanctions weakened, Saddam was able to take steps to rebuild his military, such as acquiring parts for missile systems.
However, Duelfer found the erosion of sanctions stopped after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks preventing Saddam from pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
He said after Sept. 11, Iraq was more isolated diplomatically, U.S. forces were gathering on the border, Iraq’s revenues were dropping and it was forced to let inspectors in. But Duelfer said it was unlikely that level of pressure could have been sustained because of the costs both for the United States and for Iraqis.