U.S. Hunt for Iraqi Banned Weapons Slows
BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. military units assigned to track down Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have run out of places to look and are getting time off or being assigned to other duties, even as pressure mounts on President Bush to explain why no banned arms have been found.
After nearly three months of fruitless searches, weapons hunters say they are now waiting for a large team of Pentagon intelligence experts to take over the effort, relying more on leads from interviews and documents.
"It doesn't appear there are any more targets at this time," said Lt. Col. Keith Harrington, whose team has been cut by more than 30 percent. "We're hanging around with no missions in the foreseeable future."
Over the past week, his and several other teams have been taken off assignment completely. Rather than visit suspected weapons sites, they are brushing up on target practice and catching up on letters home.
Of the seven Site Survey Teams charged with carrying out the search, only two have assignments for the coming week - but not at suspected weapons sites.
Lt. Col. Ronald Haan, who runs team 6, is using the time to run his troops through a training exercise.
"At least it's keeping the guys busy," he said.
The slowdown comes after checks of more than 230 sites - drawn from a master intelligence list compiled before the war - turned up none of the chemical or biological weapons the Bush administration said it went after Saddam Hussein to destroy.
Still, President Bush insisted Monday that Baghdad had a program to make weapons of mass destruction. "Intelligence throughout the decade shows they had a weapons program. I am absolutely convinced that with time, we'll find out they did have a weapons program," he said.
The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency said work will resume at a brisk pace once its 1,300-person Iraq Survey Group takes over.
Ahead of the war, planners were so certain of the intelligence that the weapons teams were designed simply to secure chemical and biological weapons rather than investigate their whereabouts, as U.N. inspectors had done.
But without evidence of weapons, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have begun reviewing the accuracy of information they supplied to the administration before the March invasion of Iraq. Government inquiries are being set up in Washington, London and other coalition countries to examine how possibly flawed intelligence might have influenced the decision for war.
"The smoking guns just weren't lying out in the open," said David Gai, spokesman for the Iraq Survey Group. "There's a lot more detective work that needs to be done."
The group will work more along the model of U.N. weapons inspectors.
Future sites in the search will be compiled from intelligence gathered in the field, and the teams will be reconfigured to include more civilian scientists and engineers, Gai said.
Several former U.N. inspectors from the United States, Britain and Australia, who know many of Iraq's top weapons experts, will also be brought in.
Led by Keith Dayton, a two-star general from Defense intelligence, the Iraq Survey Group is settling into headquarters in Qatar rather than Iraq. However, it will maintain a large presence of analysts and experts on the same palace grounds outside Baghdad where the weapons hunters are based.
Several dozen staffers have moved to the palace and into other buildings, now being turned into classified document centers, living quarters and office space for the Iraq Survey Group.
With prewar intelligence exhausted and senior figures from the former regime insisting Iraq hasn't had chemical or biological weapons in years, Dayton's staff will be starting from scratch.
"We've interviewed a fraction of the people who were involved. We've gone to a fraction of the sites. We've gone through a fraction of thousands and thousands and thousands of documents about this program," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday.
Intelligence agents and weapons hunters have been speaking with scientists and experts for the past month, but those interviews have not led the teams to any illegal weapons and none of the tips provided by Iraqis have panned out.
U.N. inspectors spent years learning the names and faces of the Iraqi weapons programs. But in postwar Iraq, the Bush administration cut the organization out of the hunt because of recent assessments that conflicted with Washington's portrayal of Saddam's weapons.
Relations soured further amid reports that U.S. troops failed to secure Iraq's largest nuclear facility from looters.
This week, a U.N. nuclear team returned to Iraq to survey the damage at Tuwaitha - where 2 tons of uranium had been stored for more than a decade. They began scanning the facility and its equipment for leaking radiation and signs of missing uranium.
One weapons team, specializing in nuclear materials, has been tasked to accompany the U.N. experts until they leave on June 25.