U.S. investigators hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have found no evidence that such material was moved to Syria for safekeeping before the war, according to a final report of the investigation released yesterday.
Although Syria helped Iraq evade U.N.-imposed sanctions by shipping military and other products across its borders, the investigators "found no senior policy, program, or intelligence officials who admitted any direct knowledge of such movement of WMD." Because of the insular nature of Saddam Hussein's government, however, the investigators were "unable to rule out unofficial movement of limited WMD-related materials."
The Iraq Survey Group's main findings -- that Hussein's Iraq did not possess chemical and biological weapons and had only aspirations for a nuclear program -- were made public in October in an interim report covering nearly 1,000 pages. Yesterday's final report, published on the Government Printing Office's Web site (www.gpo.gov), incorporated those pages with minor editing and included 92 pages of addenda that tied up loose ends on Syria and other topics.
U.S. officials have held out the possibility that Syria worked in tandem with Hussein's government to hide weapons before the U.S.-led invasion. The survey group said it followed up on reports that a Syrian security officer had discussed collaboration with Iraq on weapons, but it was unable to complete that investigation. But Iraqi officials whom the group was able to interview "uniformly denied any knowledge of residual WMD that could have been secreted to Syria," the report said.
The report, which refuted many of the administration's principal arguments for going to war in Iraq, marked the official end of a two-year weapons hunt led most recently by former U.N. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer. The team found that the 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent U.N. sanctions had destroyed Iraq's illicit weapons capabilities and that, for the most part, Hussein had not tried to rebuild them. Iraq's ability to produce nuclear arms, which the administration asserted was a grave and gathering threat that required an immediate military response, had "progressively decayed" since 1991. Investigators found no evidence of "concerted efforts to restart the program."
Administration officials have emphasized that, while the survey group uncovered no banned arms, it concluded that Hussein had not given up the goal of someday acquiring them.
Hussein "retained the intent and capability and he intended to resume full-scale WMD efforts once the U.N. sanctions were lifted," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday. "Duelfer provides plenty of rationale for why this country went to war in Iraq."
In one of the addenda released yesterday, investigators addressed the risk that Iraqi scientists will share their knowledge or material with other countries, particularly Syria and Iran, given previous contacts, financial inducements and professional opportunities. The report concluded that the risk exists but said "there is only very limited reporting suggesting that this is actually taking place and no reports that indicate scientists were recruited to work in a WMD program."
As for the possibility that insurgents in Iraq will draw on the expertise of Iraqi scientists to develop unconventional weapons for use against the United States and its coalition forces, the report describes these efforts so far as being "limited and contained by coalition action." The survey group was aware of only one scientist assisting terrorists or insurgents. He helped them fashion chemical mortar munitions.
The report found that missing equipment, however, "could contribute to insurgent or terrorist production of chemical or biological agents."
In most cases the equipment appeared to have been randomly looted, but in selected cases it appeared "to be taken away carefully," Duelfer said in an interview yesterday. Overall, though, "it's like going to a demolition derby for car parts," said Duelfer. The right equipment "is hard to get."
Four military personnel assigned to the survey group's mission perished in the violence that engulfed Iraq, and five others were seriously wounded, in a mission that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
No further work is planned, although teams are on hand to be dispatched when credible reports of weapons material are received in Iraq. The report says, however, that continued reports of banned arms in Iraq "are usually scams or misidentification of materials or activities." It predicts that such reports will continue.
Although new information may be forthcoming, Duelfer said in an accompanying letter that he has "confidence in the picture of events and programs covered by this report."
"If there were to be a surprise in the future," he added, "it most likely would be in the biological weapons area" because the size of those facilities can be so small.
Duelfer also recommended that the United States release some of the scientists and technocrats who are still being held captive in Iraq strictly because of their work on Iraq's weapons programs dating back to the Gulf War. "Many have been very cooperative and provided great assistance in understanding the WMD programs" and Iraq's intentions, and have exhausted their knowledge of these subjects, he wrote. "In my view, certain detainees are overdue for release."
Of 300 individuals on a "blacklist" developed by U.S. military and intelligence officials before the war, 105 have been detained. But the list, said the report, was flawed. "Some very despicable individuals who should have been listed were not, while many technocrats and even opponents of the Saddam regime made the list and hence found themselves either in jail or on the run."
The Pentagon's Whitman said that he was unaware of any scientists who had been released recently because of Duelfer's appeal and that the Defense Department routinely reviews detainees' status to see "whether or not they are a threat to the coalition and Iraqi security forces and whether or not they continue to have intelligence value."