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The weapons search

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One continuing divide between those who supported the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and those who opposed it seems to be weapons of mass destruction.

Many opponents, while stunned by the swiftness with which the Iraqi government and military crumbled, harp on the failure by American troops to produce any definitive proof so far that Iraq had chemical or biological, let alone nuclear, weapons. Those who supported the war are for the most part muting whatever concern they may feel. President Bush, in an interview with Tom Brokaw on NBC News this week, expressed confidence that the weapons would be found but warned that it might take some time.

This page agreed with the president's conviction that there were world-threatening weapons in Iraq, if not the manner in which the United States went to war. We still tend to believe they are there. Iraq certainly had biological and chemical weapons, and a program to create nuclear ones, at one point. If everything were indeed destroyed, Saddam Hussein put his nation through years of crippling economic boycotts and brought on the ruin of his regime for no good reason. On the other hand, it no longer seems totally inconceivable that the government was so corrupt and out of touch with reality that it was not even capable of operating rationally when its survival was at stake.

With the most obvious storage sites coming up empty, it is now clear that a great deal of hard-to-find information and careful analysis will be needed before we fully understand what happened. As the search for illicit weapons goes forward, it will be important to distinguish which finds are critical and which are of no enormous consequence.

The most likely discoveries may be chemical-warfare agents, the realm where Iraq was most advanced. Finding mustard gas or nerve agents in artillery shells and missiles or in bulk containers ready to be transferred into weapons would validate the stated reason for the invasion. But if investigators find only what they call precursors material that could be turned into chemical weapons the results would be more problematic. Some precursors have civilian uses and could be difficult to link to weapons without additional evidence. Finding a laboratory would indicate Iraq's determination to pursue unconventional weapons but not necessarily a ready-to-use weapons ability.

Iraq's biological weapons program was so secretive that its dimensions were not understood until 1995. The biggest discovery here would be evidence that Iraq was working with the smallpox virus, as a few experts have suspected based on circumstantial evidence. Even small quantities of the virus would be a frightening find, the first proof that smallpox exists outside the official repositories in Russia and the United States.

Search teams will also be looking for anthrax, which Iraq produced in large quantities a decade or more ago. United Nations inspectors expressed a "strong presumption" that 10,000 liters of anthrax might still exist. It would be particularly worrisome if Iraq had succeeded in drying and milling anthrax, making a highly volatile material like the kind that was used to terrorize the United States in the fall of 2001. But even 15-year-old stocks of liquid anthrax would be alarming.

Finding leftover botulinum toxin, which would most likely have lost its potency, or ricin, an agent that is sometimes used to assassinate individuals, would not suggest a mass destruction ability, although they would still be viewed as evidence of Iraq's intent to maintain biological weapons.

Equipment and materials needed to make biological warfare agents can also be used for legitimate vaccine and pharmaceutical purposes. It is relatively easy to convert civilian technologies to weapons the minute no one is looking. But most of the world will certainly not accept an argument that Iraq had innocent technologies that it was planning to use later for deadly purposes, unless there is substantial supporting proof.

A decade ago, investigators were shocked to find that Iraq was far closer to making a nuclear bomb than anyone had realized. That program has since been dismantled by international inspectors, who found no evidence that it had been revived in recent visits. Any discovery now that Iraq had obtained either highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium, putting a bomb within reach in a year or two, would be a real shock. Almost as disturbing would be full-scale enrichment facilities that would allow Iraq make its own fissile materials, leading to a bomb some years down the road.

Rather than a smoking gun, inspectors may wind up finding a bullet here, a barrel there and a chamber somewhere else. That makes the credibility of the people doing the inspecting even more important. And it makes President Bush's decision not to invite international inspectors to monitor the job seem even more misguided.

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