Iraq's great unknowns

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In the run-up to promised intervention in Iraq, the Bush administration has been trying hard to establish two kinds of justification.

One is the existence of a clear and present danger of weapons of mass destruction that should be preemptively attacked. The administration has not managed so far to demonstrate that. The furthest that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice would go, in an interview with the BBC last week, was to say of Saddam Hussein that "if he gets weapons of mass destruction," he will wreak havoc at home and abroad.

The other justification would be Iraqi involvement in anti-American terrorism. Much attention has been given to a Czech intelligence report of a meeting between hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi agent in Prague five months before Sept. 11. But the meeting has not been corroborated, nor is the CIA sure how important it was if it did happen. And, for what it is worth, Osama bin Laden called Saddam Hussein a "bad Muslim" in a videotape unearthed in Afghanistan by the CNN.

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It is embarrassing that, having designated Iraq as a part of an "axis of evil," the administration is unable, despite strenuous efforts, to state definitely that Iraq is involved in anti-American terrorism or that Iraq has chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons it is ready to use. While awaiting better intelligence, President Bush is shifting his attention from violent regime change to what a changed regime would be like.

After one meeting with Iraqi opposition leaders in Washington, the administration is reportedly planning a larger-scale international conference, seeking to establish a coalition that could create a new government.

The meeting would be held in The Hague or elsewhere in Europe in the hope of attracting so-far-absent European support for the enterprise. If an opposition united front can be established – which would be a first – then the invasion of Iraq could be presented as something like the Northern Alliance war with the Taliban in Afghanistan – an indigenous movement with American support.

Plans can be made with exiled leaders, but the great unknown is whether there are dissidents in Iraq who have survived Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule and who will come forward to help liberate their own country.

Meanwhile, the administration searches for a casus belli – a cause of war – that will sell the American public on a war in Iraq.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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