The top U.S. arms inspector reported today that there was no evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but that interviews with top officials of the deposed regime indicated that Saddam Hussein continued to harbor ambitions.
In a more than 1,000-page report, Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, described an Iraq under Hussein that craved chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but was forced to abandon them after the Gulf War in 1991.
As the 1990s progressed, the Hussein regime tried to circumvent international sanctions and use funds earmarked for the humanitarian Oil For Food program to reconstitute its weapons programs. Hussein considered the weapons a key step in protecting his image and keeping Iran at bay.
But the study group found no evidence that Iraq had succeeded.
On one hand, the report undermines the Bush administration's rationale for the war when it said Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The Kerry campaign, citing previous reports, has stressed that the administration was wrong in its premise for invading Iraq and wrong in how it has handled the reconstruction. In his debate with Bush last week, Kerry repeatedly attacked the administration for misrepresenting the status of weapons programs in Iraq and called the president's policy "a colossal error."
However, by indicating that Hussein remained a threat, the report gives some comfort to Bush, who repeatedly uses his Iraq and anti-terror policies as principal reasons why he should be reelected.
"I think the report will clearly show that Saddam Hussein was a threat we needed to take seriously, and he was in clear defiance of the international community," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said before the report was released. "I think it will show that he retained the intent and capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. I think it will show he was working to undermine the sanctions that were in place, through a number of different schemes."
The survey group report largely repeats conclusions made by David Kay, the group's former chief. Kay in January said that the United States was "almost all wrong" about Hussein's weapons programs.
The newest report, which was posted on the CIA website, is rich in detail. It is based on documents seized since the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, and on interviews with key captured Iraqis.
Among those interviewed was Hussein, who is being held in Iraq for trial on charges including crimes against humanity and murdering his citizens.
Based on that evidence, the group found that Hussein had largely ended its weapons programs after the 1991 Gulf War. But as money from humanitarian programs and from circumventing international sanctions began to flow, Hussein wanted to reconstitute his weapons programs.
Hussein's "primary goal from 1991 to 2003 was to have U.N. sanctions lifted, while maintaining the security of the regime," the report said. "The regime quickly came to see that [oil for food] could be corrupted to acquire foreign exchange both to further undermine sanctions and to provide the means to enhance dual-use infrastructure and potential WMD-related development."
Hussein "wanted to re-create Iraq's WMD capability — which was essentially destroyed in 1991 — after sanctions were removed. Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability."
The key reason Iraq wanted a tough WMD policy was Iran, the report noted: Hussein intended "to focus on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare capabilities," because "all senior level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq's principal enemy in the region. The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary."
Hussein believed that the threat of WMD had been crucial in stopping Iran during the bitter eight-year war the neighboring countries fought in the 1980s. "Similarly, during Desert Storm, Saddam believed WMD had deterred coalition forces from pressing their attack beyond the goal of freeing Kuwait. WMD had even played a role in crushing the Shi'a revolt in the south following the 1991 cease-fire," the report said.
Shorn of his weapons, Hussein drifted, hindered by sanctions that impoverished Iraq. But U.N. humanitarian efforts that allowed Iraq to sell some oil to buy necessities were begun.
The report paints a picture of an Iraqi government desperately seeking ways around the program and actively using corruption.
"Once money began to flow into Iraq, the regime's authorities, aided by foreign companies and some foreign governments, devised and implemented methods and techniques to procure illicit goods from foreign suppliers," the reports said.
"To implement its procurement efforts, Iraq under Saddam created a network of Iraqi front companies, some with close relationships to high-ranking foreign government officials.
"These foreign government officials, in turn, 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."
Companies in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen assisted Hussein with the acquisition of prohibited items through deceptive trade practices. In the case of Syria and Yemen, this included support from agencies or personnel within the government, according to the report.
"For a cut of the profits, these trade intermediaries moved, and in many cases smuggled, the prohibited items through land, sea, and air entry points along the Iraqi border."