One month after President George W. Bush’s May 1 declaration of an end to major combat operations in Iraq, U.S. forces are continuing their search for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons but have so far failed to make any significant discoveries. The future of UN weapons inspections in Iraq remains uncertain.
Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told the House International Relations Committee during a May 15 hearing that the United States has searched about 20 percent of approximately 600 known weapons of mass destruction sites, warning that the process “will take months, and perhaps years.”
Undersecretary of Defense Stephen Cambone told reporters during a May 7 briefing that the United States was sending an additional 2,000 personnel to Iraq to augment search efforts. The personnel will comprise the Iraq Survey Group, tasked with finding prohibited weapons. Cambone emphasized the importance of interviewing knowledgeable Iraqi officials and the evaluation of documentary evidence.
Explanations for the failure to find weapons vary. Administration officials have previously attributed the lack of discoveries to Iraq’s skill at concealing weapons, the need to interview scientists knowledgeable about Iraq’s weapons programs, and the possibility that Iraq might have destroyed prohibited weapons or transferred them to another country. (See ACT, May 2003.)
U.S. officials continue to assert that the coalition forces will locate chemical or biological weapons in Iraq. During a May 16 interview with Russian television, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Baghdad’s submission of an incomplete declaration about its prohibited weapons programs to the UN Security Council as evidence that the regime had been hiding such weapons.
Security Council Resolution 1441 required Iraq to submit a “currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects of its [weapons of mass destruction] programmes.” Iraq turned over a 12,000-page declaration to UN officials in Baghdad last December, but it contained little useful information and left many questions unanswered.
The most important weapons-related find has been the discovery of two trailers that U.S. officials believe were built to produce biological weapons agents. The first trailer was found April 19, and the second was discovered May 9, U.S. officials said. The second trailer did not appear to have been completed.
Powell told the Security Council February 5 that Iraq was using mobile biological laboratories as part of a larger effort to conceal its prohibited weapons programs.
U.S. experts say the trailers “appear to have had no purpose but to produce biological agents, and that they are…almost identical, in some respects,” to the vehicles Powell described, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated in a May 21 press briefing. Powell said in a press briefing that same day that U.S. experts do not know whether the trailers were used to produce biological agents because they “have been cleaned” with disinfectants and experts “can’t find actual germs on them.”
Role for the IAEA and the UN?
Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are planning to return to Iraq, according to a May 23 agency press statement. The United States agreed to let the inspectors return following repeated calls from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. Agency spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said the inspectors are planning to return “before the end of the week,” according to a May 26 Associated Press article.
Expressing deep concern about press reports indicating that civilians have been looting nuclear sites, ElBaradei called for the United States to “allow IAEA experts to return to Iraq” in a May 19 statement. He indicated that he had warned the United States on April 10 of the “need to secure the nuclear material stored at Tuwaitha”—Iraq’s nuclear research center—and provided Washington with the “information about the nuclear material, radioactive sources, and nuclear waste in Iraq.”
ElBaradei said he wrote to the United States again April 29 because, although the IAEA had received “assurances” from the United States that the site was being protected, he was concerned by further reports of looting. The United States did not respond to that message, he added.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged during a May 14 hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee that looting had taken place at nuclear sites that were unguarded by U.S. forces.
In response to ElBaradei’s May 19 suggestion, Washington is making arrangements with the agency to “conduct a joint inspection of the safeguarded storage area near Tuwaitha,” Boucher said May 21. He emphasized that the IAEA’s inspection of the Tuwaitha sites will fulfill its responsibilities under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is a separate issue from the question of whether the agency will conduct the intrusive inspections mandated by Security Council resolutions concerning Iraq.
The nuclear material stored at Tuwaitha has been under IAEA safeguards since 1991. The IAEA is responsible for monitoring safeguards agreements undertaken by states-parties to the NPT.
ElBaradei called the security problems a “safety and security” issue in his May 19 statement. IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming stated that the Tuwaitha site contains “radioactive sources that could be used” to make radiological weapons, according to a May 6 Agence France-Presse report. A radiological weapon uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material, but such a device would not come close to causing the destruction of a nuclear weapon, which is triggered by a nuclear reaction.
Meanwhile, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1483 on May 22 by a 14-0 vote, ending economic sanctions on Iraq and spelling out the United Nations’ postwar role in the country. Some sanctions on military goods remain in place.
The resolution also “reaffirms that Iraq must meet its disarmament obligations...and underlines the intention of the Council to revisit the mandates of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission” and the IAEA, but it does not specify whether those organizations should resume inspections in Iraq.
UN weapons inspectors left Iraq March 18—the day before the coalition invasion started—after almost four months of work, following U.S. failure to gain support from Security Council members opposed to the immediate use of force against Iraq.
Several reviews of the intelligence community’s assessments of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological programs are underway. A CIA spokesperson said in a May 27 interview that a review of intelligence gathering in Iraq was “put in motion” last October as part of a “lessons-learned” exercise. A team of retired intelligence officials is conducting the review, which has been underway for several weeks, the spokesperson added.
Meanwhile, Congress initiated two other investigations of the intelligence community. The chairman and ranking member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Porter Goss (R-FL) and Jane Harman (D-CA), sent a letter asking for detailed information about intelligence assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs, as well as other matters, a committee staff member said in a May 27 interview.
Describing the investigation as a “routine step,” Goss said in a May 25 appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation that its purpose is to “understand how good [intelligence community] sources and methods are.” Harman added during the same broadcast that the lack of chemical or biological weapons discoveries in Iraq to date “raises some questions” about the quality of U.S. intelligence.
On the Senate side, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA), have asked the CIA and the State Department to conduct “a formal investigation” into the intelligence community’s use of intelligence documents that were apparent forgeries.