The United States is continuing this weekend to block the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq, even though its own teams of experts have so far failed to find any definitive evidence of banned biological, chemical or nuclear materials in the country, let alone any actual armaments.
The UN inspectors, headed by the Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, did not even warrant a mention in the sweeping draft resolution on Iraq submitted by the US and Britain to the UN Security Council on Friday, giving them power to administer and control its oil revenues for at least 12 months. France and Russia, in particular, may push to remedy the omission.
US officials remain adamant, however, that the coalition forces in Iraq have no need for Mr Blix, who is due to retire at the end of June as chairman of Unmovic – the UN Monitoring and Verification Commission – or for his teams of inspectors.
Yet the work done so far by America's own technical experts in Iraq has hardly been comprehensive. Some critics are voicing suspicions that the hunt for weapons has a lower priority than the Bush administration previously claimed.
Of the list of about 900 suspected sites compiled by Washington for inspection at the outset of hostilities, only about 75 have been visited so far, Pentagon officials conceded last week. And a new team of technical experts, dubbed the Iraq Survey Team, charged with several tasks besides looking for evidence of proscribed weapons, is not due in Iraq until late May.
If Washington truly believed that Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" might fall into the hands of terrorists, critics say, it would have done more to protect the sites where such materials might have been available. Instead, seven nuclear facilities in Iraq have been ransacked by looters, while the US has yet to reply to a request from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the sites. Looting has also scattered much of the evidence that might have existed about WMDs.
US officials are also beginning to acknowledge that their efforts may never turn up any weapons. Before the war, political leaders in London and Washington conjured visions of their soldiers finding stashes of banned material such as anthrax and mustard gas. Now the best that Washington may be hoping for is that they discover evidence that the ability to produce such materials once existed.
This new reality was alluded to at the end of last week by the head of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, which has been spearheading the hunt on behalf of the coalition powers. Colonel Richard McPhee refused to predict that weapons would be found, suggesting instead he would be satisfied with evidence of pre-existing programs to produce them.
"There's no doubt ... that what we have stopped here in Iraq is a WMD program that was being run, that was capable of producing chemical weapons, biological weapons as needed by [Saddam Hussein] now or in the future," he said. "I believe clearly there was a capability here that would have kept going." So far Col McPhee's teams have been unable to find any proof that Iraq was indeed involved in the production of illegal weapons.
Some US officials, however, have pinned their hopes on an abandoned lorry trailer found at a missile-testing site near Mosul. A team from the 75th Exploitation Task Force left Baghdad yesterday to inspect the trailer, which could turn out to have been one of the mobile biological or chemical production vehicles alluded to by the the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in his presentation to the UN Security Council in February.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd