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Last Updated: Monday, 7 July, 2003, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Iraq weapons: would a jury convict?

Analysis
by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The jury may still be out on the question of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but on the evidence produced so far it is unlikely that a jury would convict.

Critics of the US and British Governments believe that, like the Cheshire cat in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the case that Iraq did have such weapons is vanishing.

I think there will be increasing evidence found of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme
Dr John Chipman IISS

If nothing substantial is found, not only will more questions be asked about the use governments made of intelligence, but issues will arise about the value of that intelligence itself.

The reputations of key agencies like the CIA and Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee are at stake, with implications for their assessments in future crises.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is standing by the decision to go to war not only "on the basis of evidence then available" but "on the basis of what we know now".

Shifting their ground

However, it is interesting to note that even those who early on accepted that there was evidence against Iraq are subtly shifting their ground.

Dr John Chipman, Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, has told the BBC: "I think there will be increasing evidence found of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme."

Coalition troops in Iraq
Weapons searches could take up to two years
Note the word "programme." It implies an aim, perhaps a capability, but not necessarily the possession of these weapons.

Back in September, when the IISS issued its own influential report on Iraq just ahead of similar ones from the British Government and the CIA, its assessment was more definite. The word "arsenal" was used:

"This Strategic Dossier does not attempt to make a case, either way, as to whether Saddam Hussein's WMD arsenal is a casus belli per se."

Evidence of intention

The current aim of the US and British Governments is not so much to find actual Iraqi weapons but evidence of Iraqi intentions. They have a team of experts, known as the Iraq Survey Group, roaming the country and questioning scientists.

Reliable indications that Iraq intended to defy the UN and secretly develop chemical or biological weapons, even if on a relatively small scale, would go a long way to justifying their position.

Two recent finds have been brought to the jury's attention. The first is the discovery of a truck which was seized by Kurdish forces near Mosul in late April. The CIA website declares unambiguously that this truck (and other vehicles found elsewhere in Iraq) constitute "Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production Plants".

A former UN weapons inspector, Steve Allinson, a British trained chemical engineer now living in New Zealand, told the BBC that he felt "vindicated" in doubting that Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction

However, there are sceptics. The New York Times concluded in an editorial: "It is difficult to know for sure whether these mobile units were part of a program to produce unconventional weapons or served a more benign purpose."

Then more recently, it was announced that an Iraq scientist had led US forces to his rose garden under which he had buried a barrel containing the blueprints of a centrifuge for separating enriched uranium.

He had, he said, been ordered to do this after the first Gulf War of 1991. The implication is that the Iraqi Government was trying to maintain an ability to enrich uranium, without which it could not build a nuclear bomb.

The question that arises, however, is whether this was an old plan or an active one. If active, it would be highly significant.

Inspector's doubts

For some, the failure to find any weapons is pretty conclusive already. A former UN weapons inspector, Steve Allinson, a British trained chemical engineer now living in New Zealand, told the BBC that he felt "vindicated" in doubting that Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction.

He said that when he returned to Iraq during the searches earlier this year, places he had inspected on previous visits "had hardly changed, except that their infrastructure had degraded". He was "not very surprised" that nothing definite had been found so far.

Several key allegations have been found to be either unfounded or lacking substance. Chemical and biological material unaccounted for has not been discovered in weapons form. It is still simply unaccounted for.

Some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
Joseph Wilson US diplomat

A British claim, later repeated by President George W Bush, that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from an African country (Niger) was not supported either by the International Atomic Energy Agency or by a former American diplomat, Joseph Wilson, who was told to look into it.

Mr Wilson concluded that it was "highly doubtful" that a transaction had taken place. He further concluded, in an interview with NBC, that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat".

These remarks are among the strongest made by a domestic critic about the Bush administration which has been relatively insulated from criticism.

Nothing has been found to back up the British Government's claim that Iraq was ready to deploy some weapons within 45 minutes. Nor have any Scud missiles been discovered, despite claims that Iraq had up to twenty of them.

The case for the prosecution will not be complete until the task of the Iraq Survey group has been finished.

Dr Chipman suggested that it might take 18 months to two years for them to conclude their investigations.


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