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US says Iraq arms plan relied on deceit

Report to describe dispersed programs

WASHINGTON -- Investigators searching for Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction will report next month that Saddam Hussein's regime spread nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons plans and parts throughout the country to deceive the United Nations, according to senior Bush administration and intelligence officials.

Once freed of inspections and international sanctions, the weapons programs were intended to be pulled together quickly to manufacture substantial quantities of deadly gases and germs, the investigators will argue, although the development of a nuclear weapon would probably take many months, if not years.

After more than four months of searching hundreds of sites in Iraq, the team of US military officers and intelligence agents headed by former UN arms inspector David Kay has not produced hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction. US officials have not ruled out that stocks of weapons will still be found or were secreted out of the country before the war.

But the investigators' conclusions, which have emerged from interviews with senior Bush administration officials and multiple intelligence sources with access to the team's findings, make the White House's best case so far that Hussein hid an outlawed weapons program. A primary justification for toppling the regime was the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The sources say Kay -- who has in the past hinted in general terms at Iraq's deception in hiding a weapons program -- will build a strong, but largely circumstantial case that Hussein dispersed his weapons programs. The case will be based on interviews with captured Iraqi leaders, documents from government files, discoveries including a pre-1991 nuclear centrifuge for enriching uranium found buried in a scientist's backyard garden, and components of possible weapons systems found in various areas of the country.

But some former inspectors and weapons specialists say that unless the US team finds significant quantities of outlawed chemical and biological agents, the Bush administration's case would fall far short of expectations. They cited Bush's prewar assertions that Iraq maintained large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, making it an imminent threat to US security. Some observers also contend that finding that the Iraqi program had been disassembled could prove that international efforts to restrain the regime's weapons ambitions were working.

(A report in today's Los Angeles Times says US and allied intelligence officials are conducting reviews to see whether they were deceived by Iraqi defectors feeding misinformation to the West in the lead-up to the war.)

Officials said the investigators plan to paint a picture of an Iraqi government intent on expanding its ability to produce chemical and biological weapons and continuing its search for a nuclear bomb, while ensuring that the parts, if uncovered individually, would not be condemning or could be explained away as legitimate scientific and manufacturing endeavors.

A key aspect of the case, the sources said, will be so-called "dual use" equipment designed for making, for example, pesticides, but also useful for producing chemical weapons.

One senior administration official said Kay's 1,200-member Iraq Survey Group has uncovered a "highly dispersed program spread across Iraq that could quickly be turned into a sophisticated manufacturing program."

"Kay is breaking the code," the official said on condition of anonymity. "The available intelligence on the state of the WMD program would fill buildings."

Added one intelligence official with access to Kay's reports: "They had everything ready to go and were just working toward sanctions being lifted and could go right back to work."

Kay is planning to make his case to Congress as early as mid-September, the officials said. But it remains unclear how much of his findings will be made public. Another intelligence official said Kay's previous public assertion that Iraq had a fine-tuned deception program to hide its weapons activities may not be cataloged in great detail out of concern of giving other would-be proliferators tips on how to hide their efforts.

But the intelligence official, who has read Kay's progress reports said, "They're building the case."

"It's based on a lot of things," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "What people have told them, a lot of documents, a lot of dual-use materials."

A decentralized program that depended heavily on equipment that could be used for legitimate as well as illegal weapons purposes also could help explain the purposes of two tractor-trailer trucks found soon after the war that many intelligence officials concluded were mobile biological weapons laboratories, the officials said. In subsequent months, as no traces of outlawed materials were found in the trucks, some intelligence analysts have expressed the contradictory view that they were more likely intended for making hydrogen, which could be used in weather balloons.

But "the trailers may be an example of a dispersed program and a program of deception that will be well documented," the intelligence official said.

The Iraqis' so-called "break-out" program -- which could rely on small, dispersed teams of specialists and hidden equipment and supplies to build weapons of mass destruction in the event of relaxed scrutiny -- also could explain why the Republican Guard did not use chemical weapons against American troops in the war, as US commanders feared. Kay is expected to unveil evidence to support assertions by US officials before the war that Iraqi troops had been ordered to launch gas attacks on invading troops.

But Kay's findings to date raise as many questions as they answer, according to former UN inspectors and weapons specialists. A primary question is whether such a program as described by officials constitutes the level of threat that Bush administration officials described to build support for invading Iraq, the specialists said.

Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the argument over going to combat "was whether the threat was so imminent and dangerous that we had to go to war. If Kay says there was potential there, that refutes the administration's rationale for going to war. No one ever argued there was nothing there. I still suspect we'll find remnants of the program, perhaps nerve or mustard gas or anthrax samples."

But Cirincione and others said the potential to build weapons was a problem that "inspections could deal with," including the Bush administration's attempts in 2001 to tighten the Iraq sanctions to stop the flow of more dual-use equipment.

Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector who is a major critic of the Bush administration, said resting the case heavily on dual-use equipment is not compelling because any modern state would have such equipment. "Iraq is a modern, industrial state, or was, that needs access to technology to survive. A lot of that technology is dual-use in nature. Why would it stun anyone to find out they have covertly procured a dual-use program? This isn't new."

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