Saddam once again on a collision course with U.S.
The following is a text adaptation of a joint CNN Presents/New York Times special report, "Showdown: Iraq."
(CNN) -- More than a decade ago, the Iraqi president became such a familiar fixture that the world came to know him by his first name.
Saddam. It means "he who confronts."
The autocratic leader of Iraq since the late 1970s, Saddam has defied all the predictions that he would be overthrown. He has confronted economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, and once again, he is on a collision course with the United States over weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush administration says Saddam is intent on acquiring chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to threaten his neighbors in the Middle East. The only way to stop him, according to U.S. officials, is to strike first and decisively.
"Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger," President Bush told the U.N. General Assembly on September 12. "To suggest otherwise is to hope against the evidence."
Iraq has couched its struggle with the United States in similar terms, albeit with the sides reversed. According to Iraq's state news agency, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said that Iraq is ready to face "aggression by the American administration of evil."
"The forces of evil will carry their coffins on their backs [and] die in disgraceful failure," said Saddam, in characteristically defiant terms, on Iraqi television in August.
Evidence is circumstantial but troubling
Iraqi officials deny having chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and accuse the White House of wanting to oust Saddam's regime in order to control the Middle East's oil.
Even some U.S. allies, such as Germany, have opposed a military confrontation with Iraq, saying war could disrupt an already volatile Middle East and arguing there is no proof that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or the capability and resolve to use them.
Military action against Iraq is widely opposed in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia has said it will not allow the United States to use its bases in a war against Iraq unless it is sanctioned by the United Nations.
While Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have articulated their cases in recent months, some politicians in Britain and elsewhere have criticized the evidence as largely circumstantial. Therein lies the problem, say U.S. and British officials: Saddam's unswerving refusal to cooperate with weapons inspectors makes it difficult to prove that Iraq has -- or does not have -- weapons of mass destruction.
Satellite pictures taken last year, for instance, apparently show that Iraq has rebuilt several known weapons sites destroyed in the Gulf War -- including Falluja and Al Qa-im, 25 miles (40 kilometers) and 160 miles (258 kilometers) west of Baghdad, respectively.
Iraq says the facilities serve non-military purposes, making chemicals for civilian uses such as turning phosphate into fertilizer. U.S. officials fear otherwise, saying the sites could be making chemical weapons or using phosphate to extract uranium for nuclear bombs. But without inspectors on the ground, it's difficult to tell what's happening.
"It could be that there is covert activity going on there," said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security. "They design their buildings and design their activities knowing that they're being observed."
In the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq gave U.N. inspectors unlimited access to search for and destroy weapons of mass destruction and pledged "full, final and complete disclosure" of its arsenal.
But Charles Duelfer, a top official with the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1993 until it was disbanded in 2000, says Iraq hindered more than it helped the effort, misleading inspectors and refusing access to sensitive buildings.
"It got to the point they knew that we knew that they knew that we knew," he said. "It was a great game, in a sense."
After years of hide and seek, the inspection system broke down in 1998. The United Nations pulled its inspectors from the country, and the United States and Great Britain launched Operation Desert Fox -- four days of airstrikes against military and political targets inside Iraq.
Since then, without inspectors on the ground, it has been nearly impossible to know what is now in Iraq's arsenal. Under mounting pressure after Bush's speech to the United Nations, Iraq now says U.N. weapons inspectors can return to the country.
Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector and a vocal critic of military action against Iraq, says the U.S. case against Saddam's regime is speculative and says "we can't go to war based on ignorance."
"I know that inspections did work," Ritter said in a CNN interview. "We achieved a 90 to 95 percent level of verified, absolutely certain accountability for Iraq's weapons program."
But many of Ritter's ex-colleagues strongly disagree, saying Saddam consistently undermined inspections and will continue to defy international mandates unless action is taken.
"There is a lot of proof [supporting the U.S. case against Iraq] -- the proof of failure to allow inspectors in and failure to allow inspectors, once in, to conduct inspections in an unfettered manner," said former weapons inspector David Kay.
Nuclear bombs the biggest threat
U.S. intelligence on the contents of Iraq's arsenal is rather spotty, said Michael Gordon, who has examined the issue closely in his reporting for the New York Times.
Upon its withdrawal in 1998, UNSCOM said Iraq had not properly accounted for at least 4,000 tons of ingredients used to make chemical weapons.
"If Iraq has chemical weapons -- and they do -- that's a worry in the battlefield. That's a tactical problem," Gordon said. "But it's not a strategic weapon. It's not a weapon that, in and of itself, changes the balance of power in the region."
In order to make such weapons more effective strategically, said Gordon, Iraq needs to find a more potent way to deliver them.
"The kind of warheads [Saddam] had to deliver biological or chemical weapons, they detonated on impact -- they didn't disperse the agent very effectively," he said. "What is not known is whether he's been able to improve on those designs."
The biggest concern of U.S. and allied officials is that Iraq will acquire nuclear weapons. With them, Saddam could threaten, and in fact obliterate Kuwait, Israel and U.S. forces in a region containing more than half the world's oil.
"That would change the entire strategic equation in the Persian Gulf," Gordon said.
The key is acquiring enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon. Experts say Iraq, working on its own, would need several years to make a nuclear bomb.
But if Iraq acquires enriched uranium on the black market, it could produce a nuclear device within a year because many highly trained (including some U.S.-educated) nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians are still in Iraq.
Iraq sent thousands of people abroad for training, like Khidir Hamza, who studied physics in the United States. He became a top scientist in Iraq's nuclear program before defecting to the United States in 1994.
"Few left, mostly are, they are there. And these guys are not riding on camels; they are not backward. They were trained in top world universities and research centers," Hamza said.
Asked if the remaining scientists, like Hamza, didn't want to build weapons of mass destruction, Hamza replied, "Maybe they have no choice."
The question confronting the world is: if Iraq rebuilds its secret weapons, will it share those weapons with terror groups, such as al Qaeda?
Bush told the U.N. General Assembly in September that al Qaeda operatives are now in Iraq and warned that Saddam could provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.
And recently the administation said al Qaeda members have been in Baghdad seeking training in biological and chemical weapons and to discuss safe haven opportunities in Iraq.
"We certainly have evidence of senior al Qaeda who have been in Baghdad in recent periods," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
History as a guide
Amid all the questions about Iraq, some experts look back at history for a lesson.
After succumbing to the military might of the United States, England and their allies at the end of World War I, Germany surrendered and seemingly signed away its armed forces.
Plans called for international weapons inspectors to systematically disarm the German military and deny the nation the capability and resources to wage -- and especially initiate -- war again.
But the plan failed. Armaments were hidden from inspectors and the international organizations charged with enforcing the treaty that ended the war proved too divided, tentative or weak to do anything about it. The rise of Adolf Hilter set in motion the events that triggered World War II.
"Germany never really disarmed," Dueffler said. "They did exactly all the things that we found Iraq was doing. Same set of problems. Same outcome."
U.S. officials fear history could repeat itself soon with Iraq -- soundly beaten in the Gulf War but years later, more defiant than ever.
"In 1991, the Iraqi regime agreed destroy and stop developing all weapons of mass destruction and long range missiles and to prove to the world it has done so by complying with rigorous inspections," Bush told the U.N. General Assembly on September 12. "Iraq has broken every aspect of this fundamental pledge."
Iraq denies it.
"They are telling wrongly the American public opinion and the world that Iraq is reproducing weapons of mass destruction," Aziz said on September 1. "That's not true."