Saturday 3 May 2003
Saddam Hussein appears to have shut down or destroyed large parts of his unconventional weapons programmes before the war in Iraq, a senior Bush administration official who has been closely involved in the quest to purge Iraq of weapons of mass destruction said this week.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he would be "amazed if we found weapons-grade plutonium or uranium" and it was unlikely large volumes of biological or chemical material would be discovered. He suggested that the sanctions and UN inspections probably prompted Mr Hussein to dispose of much of his stockpile.
"The biological weapons stuff is easy to destroy," he said, adding that chemical agents might have been dumped in the desert.
The disclosure will fuel criticism in Britain - and particularly among Tony Blair's backbenchers - about the failure to unearth a "smoking gun". The prime minister made the need to find and destroy Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction the central justification for war.
President George W. Bush also repeatedly justified the use of force against Iraq by arguing that Mr Hussein's deadly weapons could threaten its neighbours and fall into the hands of terrorists who might strike the US. The failure so far to find evidence of an Iraqi weapons programme has led to speculation that no such programme existed.
However, the senior administration official insisted the US never expected to find a huge arsenal. He said the US was more concerned by Mr Hussein's team of 1,000 scientists, whom he termed "nuclear mujahadeen". These scientists, he argued, could have restarted Iraq's weapons programme once the crisis passed. A primary concern was dual-use "factories and breweries" which could be converted into weapons plants but were allowed under UN sanctions.
"He kept them together in the expectation that one day the sanctions would disappear and the inspections would disappear and he would fire up that nuclear capability," the official said.
The comments mark a refinement in the controversial concept of a "preventive war", according to which the Bush administration is willing to take pre-emptive military action against a country that has deadly weapons in mass quantities. It suggests instead that the administration will act against a hostile regime that has nothing more than the intent and ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The official's claims come even as US and UK officials have insisted in recent days that the US will ultimately find stashes of deadly weapons.
Mr Blair said this week he had "no doubt" that the allies would find them, while Richard Armitage, US deputy secretary of state, said on Wednesday: "We will find evidence of Iraq's weapons soon."
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