WASHINGTON - Since President Bush has declared that the coming war will be fought to disarm Iraq, the United States has a major stake in unearthing concrete evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that has so far eluded United Nations weapons inspectors.
American assertions that Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons could soon be confirmed, with potentially horrible consequences, if Saddam Hussein uses them by aircraft, missile or artillery against U.S. forces, neighboring countries or his own people in a desperate bid to save his regime.
Should an Iraqi attack employing chemical or biological weapons not materialize, however, the burden would fall to U.S. forces to find and expose to the world the deadly arsenal that Bush and others have long insisted Hussein possesses.
"If Iraq doesn't use chemical or biological weapons, and an investigation of the Iraqi program reveals just a small amount, we will clearly have egg on our face, and it could undermine the Bush administration's justification for going to war," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research organization.
The quantity of chemical or biological agents that Iraq is found to have in its possession is important, Albright said, because "if it's below a certain size, they can't use it in warfare." Many countries possess small amounts, he said. "If the stockpiles are small, it undermines the argument that war has to take place."
Some commentators have made the opposite point: If American soldiers find strong evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, many opponents of war at home and abroad will belatedly conclude that Bush was justified.
Even France, which has led U.N. opposition to military action, might reverse itself and fight alongside Americans if Iraq were to unleash biological or chemical weapons, the French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, told CNN yesterday.
Hussein has repeatedly denied that he has weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush administration contends that Iraq poses a unique threat because, unlike other countries with chemical and biological weapons, it has used them not only against neighbors but against its own people.
A senior State Department official dismissed yesterday the possibility that Iraq might turn out not to have weapons of mass destruction after all and that Bush's reason for an invasion could therefore be called into question.
"We think we will find it. We know they have it, and dealing with a hypothetical is not something we spend a lot of time wringing our hands about," the official said.
The U.S. military takes the prospect that Iraq will use chemical or biological weapons in combat seriously enough that its troops are equipped with protective gear. Every Army unit has a specialist who trains soldiers on how to fight on a battlefield where such weapons might be used.
Citing intelligence reports, Pentagon officials said yesterday that that Hussein has given his field-level commanders the power to use chemical weapons without further orders from Baghdad.
During the invasion, troops and experts will launch a nationwide search to find and destroy any chemical and biological arms, an effort spearheaded by specialists from the Technical Escort Unit and the Chem-Bio Rapid Response Team, both based at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"The president sees that as a major part of the effort," the State Department official said. The presumption that Hussein has chemical and biological weapons and intends to develop nuclear arms lies at the heart of Bush's legal and political justification for going to war to topple the Iraqi dictator.
In his speech Monday night, the president justified a pre-emptive attack in part on three U.N. Security Council resolutions. The first, from November 1990, authorized nations to use "all necessary means" not only to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait but to enforce "all subsequent relevant resolutions."
The second, adopted in April 1991, suspended the gulf war hostilities but required Iraq to disclose and dismantle its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and all missiles beyond a prescribed range. The third, adopted last November, declared that Iraq had not complied with numerous U.N. mandates after 12 years, and threatened "serious consequences," a diplomatic euphemism for war.
Bush also said in his speech that it could be suicidal if the United States failed to prevent Iraq from turning over weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.
But the administration hasn't been able to show to the satisfaction of many experts that Hussein has active ties to al-Qaida. Also, some intelligence officials say, he would be most likely to use chemical or biological weapons if confronted by a direct threat to his regime's survival.
Some American claims about Iraq's weapons programs have been called into question.
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, says there isn't even a "plausible indication" that Iraq has resumed developing nuclear weapons. Vice President Dick Cheney, on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, said Hussein "has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
In addition, ElBaradei's agency has concluded that a key piece of intelligence conveyed to the United States and Britain - that Iraq sought to procure uranium from Niger - is based on forged documents. The information was supplied to a number of intelligence agencies by a source now deemed to be suspect, a Security Council diplomat said.
Hans Blix, who heads the U.N. agency that has been searching for Iraq's chemical, biological and missile programs, has challenged U.S. intelligence purporting to show that Iraq was moving chemical munitions to hide them from inspectors.
Even if U.S. forces fail to find chemical or biological weapons, Bush has a solid legal basis for military action, said Ruth Wedgwood, an international law specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It would be politically nicer if we found something," she said. But Bush's action will be judged on what he had reason to believe was true when he decided to go to war and on the fact that he tried to resolve the crisis peacefully beforehand, Wedgwood said.
U.S. officials expect to have a much easier time than the inspectors in locating Iraqi chemical and biological stockpiles and evidence of a nuclear program once Hussein's regime is gone. After the war, Iraqis who are thought to be knowledgeable about the programs will no longer be under threat if they talk, and will be able to lead skilled U.S. investigators to sites and documents, said the senior State Department official.
But Albright said the Bush administration has exaggerated the available evidence to the point where whatever it produces after the war should be carefully scrutinized.
"The U.S. government may spin things," he said, suggesting the administration could exaggerate the importance of evidence it uncovers. "There needs to be some accountability, and it should be an international effort. Anything the U.S. does in postwar Iraq has to be scrutinized carefully by the international community and the media."
Blix has prepared a document detailing the steps required to confirm whether Iraq has disarmed. Some weapons experts, along with the British government, argue that U.N. inspectors need to be given a continuing role in monitoring Iraq's weapons programs after the war. The Bush administration has not committed itself to giving the inspectors a postwar role, but the State Department official said the idea has not been excluded.