WASHINGTON -- The surprise discovery of empty chemical warheads in Iraq on Thursday highlights the basic problem facing the United Nations: What is a smoking gun?
Initial reports indicated that the warheads had not been declared by Baghdad in earlier inventories provided to the United Nations. If that's true, the find could give the Bush administration ammunition in its effort to convince the U.N. Security Council that Iraq should be forcibly disarmed.
The initial response from the White House, however, was cautious. Officials indicated that, pending further investigation, the warheads alone were not the telltale evidence of a forbidden arsenal that would justify military action.
"It's an interesting development, and the discovery raises a lot of questions: Why weren't they declared? Why weren't they destroyed, especially if they are old? And why does Iraq still have them?" said a senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified.
"At minimum, it would seem to be a technical violation. But it's also not exactly a smoking gun," the official said.
The discovery at Iraq's Ukhaider weapons depot 75 miles south of Baghdad reflects the basic conundrum -- namely, where to draw the line in weaponry and how much wiggle room should be tolerated -- in the effort to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Former weapons inspectors challenged Iraq's claim that the warheads had been declared to earlier inspection teams. Were that the case, inspectors said, the warheads would have been melted down.
Between 1991 and 1998, when the last inspectors left, more than 10,000 warheads adapted for chemical or biological use were destroyed. Thousands more are still unaccounted for. Baghdad claimed it destroyed them but has never provided proof, U.S. officials say.
Thursday's discovery would have been more incriminating if the 12 warheads, all described as in excellent condition, were or had ever been loaded with chemical agents. The new U.N. team said that 11 of the 12 shells were empty but that one needed more study, apparently for traces of an agent.
"It would have been more interesting if the warheads were filled with chemicals or if there'd been a larger stockpile or if they'd been newer, which would show that they're making them now," the senior U.S. official said.
The depot is also a well-known weapons site, U.S. officials said, not a hiding place just uncovered by the teams that resumed the disarmament process Nov. 27 under the mandate of a new U.N. resolution.
Some former inspectors also said they weren't surprised to hear about the discovery -- or to hear Baghdad's claim that the warheads were obsolete, forgotten. Iraq, which once had the region's largest and best-equipped military, has an arsenal allowed by the United Nations that includes millions of rounds of artillery shells for conventional use.
"If there are depots with millions of rounds of artillery shells for conventional use and one box of artillery shells for chemical use, it would be easy to miss. It could have fallen between the cracks," said Raymond Zilinskas, a former U.N. inspector and now director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Former weapons inspectors also predict that the empty warheads aren't likely to be the last discovery that is suspicious but not egregious enough to persuade the Security Council to sanction the use of force, according to U.S. officials and former weapons inspectors.
"We can expect more of this, no question. They'll probably find several other omissions with only quasi-explanations," said Richard O. Spertzel, former head of the U.N. biological weapons inspections.
At the same time, former U.N. inspectors warn that their successors may never find the "smoking gun" of fully loaded chemical munitions that would reveal an active Iraqi program.
"I'm not sure what the blazes it is that [inspectors] and the world's diplomats expect in terms of a smoking gun. If it's loaded munitions, this is a waste of their time. How many filled munitions did we find in more than seven years? None," Spertzel said.
"So that makes the warheads an important finding."
Although the White House's official reaction amounted to wait and see, President Bush repeated his warning that his patience was running thin.
"It's up to Saddam Hussein to do what the entire world has asked him to do," the president said in a speech Thursday in Scranton, Pa. "So far, the evidence hasn't been very good that he is disarming. And time is running out. At some point in time, the United States' patience will run out."
But the smoking-gun issue resonates both with the U.S. public and with key American allies.
A new poll shows that 76% of the American public supports a war with Iraq -- if the inspectors find nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or ballistic missiles. But the public is split on the need for a military operation if the U.N. doesn't find weapons of mass destruction, even if it does prove that Iraq still has the ability to produce them, according to the survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
A significant majority, 63%, doesn't accept Washington's contention that Hussein has to prove he no longer has weapons of mass destruction or face military force. And only 42% say the president has adequately explained the justification for sending U.S. troops to take on Hussein, the poll found.
The European Union also welcomed news of the warhead discovery as a sign that the inspections process is an effective way to ensure that Baghdad is disarmed.
"This is proof of the work of the inspectors," said Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief.
Greece, which now holds the rotating EU presidency, said the U.N. teams need more time to pursue their mission.
"This confirms that they are doing their job well. They must continue," said Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis. "They need the personnel and time required to give a convincing answer to the questions that have been raised."