Bush administration officials were peppered yesterday with questions about why allied forces in Iraq have not found any of the chemical or biological weapons that were President Bush's central justification for forcibly disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government.
Officials said they are certain such weapons of mass destruction will be located. But the officials warned that the weapons may have been dispersed in small batches and could be hard to find.
The Iraqi government has not used gas or germs to try to repel invading forces, or loaded such weapons of mass destruction onto missiles that have been fired into Kuwait, raising questions about the size and functionality of Hussein's arsenal.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the war's commander, opened his news conference in Qatar yesterday by saying that the location and destruction of weapons of mass destruction, and the collection of information about them were among the administration's eight objectives in Iraq. But during questioning, Franks acknowledged that finding them "is work that lies in front of us rather than work we have already accomplished."
"There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction," Franks said. "As this operation continues, those weapons will be identified, found, along with the people who have produced them and who guard them." He added that the amount of time that will take "remains to be seen, very candidly."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Friday there is "no question" that weapons of mass destruction will be found, and said documenting the discoveries "is one of the reasons that there are so many reporters present with the military."
A scarcity of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq would have the potential to create both relief and concern for the administration. Though it is unmitigated good news that such weapons have not been used against U.S. troops, the absence of such weapons would raise questions about the rationale for war.
Bush, in his weekly radio address yesterday, again mentioned Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as justification for war and listed their removal as the primary mission. "Our mission is clear, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people," he said.
A senior U.S. defense official said it is vital to Bush's political objectives to find and make a credible display of evidence of forbidden weapons programs "very, very fast." At the same time, career disarmament specialists and outside experts said it is far too soon to expect results from such a hunt when the assault to take control of the country has just begun.
Some specialists, particularly in Europe, argue that Iraq has little remaining capability to use such weapons. The weapons also might be disassembled, in hiding from U.N. inspectors. Or Hussein's Republican Guard or other elite forces ringing Baghdad might be waiting to use weapons that other parts of the military were afraid or unable to use.
Kenneth Adelman, a former Reagan arms control official who is close to top Bush military officials and serves on a Pentagon advisory panel, said these weapons are likeliest to be found near Tikrit and Baghdad, "because they're the most protected places with the best troops."
"I have no doubt we're going to find big stores of weapons of mass destruction," Adelman said, though he acknowledged some surprise that they have not been used yet. "One thing we may find is Saddam Hussein ordered them to be used and soldiers didn't follow the orders. The threat of use goes down every day because adherence to orders goes down."
Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have tried to dissuade Iraqi troops from following orders to fire such weapons by threatening perpetrators with prosecution for war crimes. The administration warned in a "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction" released in December that it would "respond with overwhelming force," including "all options," to the use of biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear weapons on the nation, its troops or its allies.
Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said during a televised briefing at the Pentagon yesterday that the administration knows about "a number of sites" where Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Clarke refused to provide any estimate of how many sites the United States knows of, even when she was asked, "More than 10? Less than a hundred?"
Staff writer Barton Gellman contributed to this report.