No 'Smoking Gun' in Iraq

So Far, Inspectors Tell U.N.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said his investigators had uncovered no "smoking gun" evidence that Iraq has resumed its secret weapons programs, but he sharply criticized Baghdad for failing to adequately respond to questions about its previous arms programs or to supply a comprehensive list of Iraqi scientists engaged in weapons activities.

Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Security Council it will be impossible to give Iraq a clean bill of health unless it backs up its claim to have eliminated any previous programs to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

But the two men also urged the council to be patient, noting that it could be months before they can provide a definitive conclusion about whether Iraq has restarted its weapons programs. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, echoing remarks by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said that Blix and ElBaradei will not be able to provide the council with a conclusive, comprehensive assessment of banned weapons activities in Iraq by the time that review is due on Jan. 27. Some senior U.S. officials had viewed that assessment as a potential trigger for military action.

But Powell played down the importance of the Jan. 27 assessment, saying "it is not necessarily a D-day for decision-making."

-- Colum Lynch

Big U.S. Ground Force

Being Assembled for Iraq

The U.S. military is assembling a ground force for a possible invasion of Iraq that could total more than 100,000 troops, with three to four heavy Army divisions, an airborne division, a Marine division and an assortment of Special Operations forces, according to defense officials and analysts.

Although the exact makeup of the ground force has yet to be decided, the Army has summoned the commanders of four of its best-equipped and most capable divisions for an exercise called Victory Scrimmage at the end of the month. Commanders will use computer simulations to run through Iraq war scenarios, defense officials said. The military buildup in the Persian Gulf has been underway for some time, but has accelerated with the approach of the Jan. 27 deadline for the first major report by U.N. weapons inspectors to the U.N. Security Council.

-- Vernon Loeb

A Beer a Day May Keep

The Cardiologist Away

Drinking a glass or two of wine, beer or any other kind of alcohol every day can significantly reduce the risk of suffering a heart attack, according to a large new study that is the first to examine whether drinking occasionally or daily is the best strategy for taking advantage of alcohol's health benefits.

The study also shows clearly for the first time that any kind of alcohol -- not just red wine -- can protect the heart.

The new study is the latest installment in a long-running debate about alcohol. It has long been vilified as part of an unhealthful lifestyle and clearly causes serious health problems for millions of people who drink heavily.

Researchers first became aware that the purported healing powers of alcohol might have merit when they noticed the "French Paradox" -- the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of the French having a surprisingly low rate of heart disease despite their rich diets.

Studies then found a connection between alcohol consumption and reduced risk of coronary heart disease, apparently because alcohol raises levels of "good" cholesterol and reduces the chances that clots will form and cut off blood flow to the heart and brain. That has led to a debate among public health experts over whether they should not only stop discouraging people from light or moderate drinking, but possibly even begin to encourage them to have a drink regularly.

-- Rob Stein

FDA Backs Cautious, Limited

Post-Menopausal Hormone Use

Women can take hormones after menopause to alleviate hot flashes and vaginal dryness and perhaps to stave off osteoporosis if they are at high risk for thinning bones, but should always use the lowest doses for the shortest possible time, the federal government said.

In its first detailed guidance about post-menopausal hormone use since the discovery of new risks from the drugs caused widespread confusion and anxiety last summer, the Food and Drug Administration also said women should not take estrogen or combinations of estrogen and progesterone to reduce their risk for heart disease.

In fact, the agency ordered that all products containing estrogen must now include a prominent warning on their labels that extended use could increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke, breast cancer and blood clots.

Women who suffer from vaginal dryness and similar problems should try using topical creams or gels instead of hormones, the agency said. And women at risk for osteoporosis should also explore alternatives, the FDA said.

.

-- Rob Stein

Bush Renominates Miss. Judge

And 29 Other Judicial Choices

Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi, who was rejected for a federal appellate judgeship last year by Democrats who questioned his commitment to civil rights, was renominated by President Bush just hours after Republicans took control of the Senate.

Bush asked the Senate to consider 29 other candidates for judgeships who had been blocked or defeated when Democrats controlled the Senate. Among them is Priscilla R. Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice who was voted down by Democrats who objected to her antiabortion views and said she was anti-labor.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is a longtime Pickering friend and was his chief promoter. Democratic officials said they were stunned Bush would reopen the fight so soon after Lott resigned as Senate Republican leader because of outrage over his praise for the segregationist presidential ticket of 1948.

-- Mike Allen and Charles Lane

U.S. Plays Down N. Korea

Withdrawal From Nuclear Treaty

North Korea's decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was greeted as a regrettable but expected development by the Bush administration, which is split over how to respond to the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Some senior officials are counseling careful engagement and others are urging complete isolation that would lead to the crumbling of the North Korean regime. The "very dramatic tensions" within the government have led to near paralysis in policymaking, one official said.

For now, officials have settled on a tack of trying to break what they consider the usual cycle of North Korea's relations with the United States -- in which the regime acts badly and then wins concessions -- by expressing only perfunctory concern over North Korean actions. But this approach has been opposed by North Korea's neighbors and has badly ruptured relations with South Korea, a long-time ally of the United States.

The crisis began in October, when North Korea admitted a secret program to enrich uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, over the objections of Japan and South Korea, pushed for an immediate suspension of fuel oil deliveries to North Korea. In response, North Korea last month ousted international inspectors and moved to restart a plutonium facility that had been closed under a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration.

-- Glenn Kessler