WASHINGTON — As coalition troops move closer to victory in Iraq, they are facing an unexpected, and possibly uncomfortable, scenario: The war may be over before any weapons of mass destruction - the primary justification for the conflict in the eyes of many - are uncovered.
Three weeks into the invasion, the few discoveries the coalition has made may turn out to be nothing more than simple pesticides. US officials say the bulk of the search may be put off until the country is secured. Even then it may take months.
Despite the fixation on finding a "smoking gun," experts say in the end it may not make that much difference in the way the world perceives the justification for the war. At home, polls show that a vast majority of Americans not only approve of the invasion, but that most no longer regard finding weapons of mass destruction as essential to the war's success.
Likewise, in the international arena, analysts say perceptions about the war have hardened to the point where discoveries of weapons may have little impact on public opinion. Ultimately, American and international opinion may turn out to be similar in that it is strong - though divergent - core values that underpin support or opposition to the war, and not what is now increasingly perceived as the "secondary" issue of chemical and biological weapons.
Still, as the coalition moves into the messy postwar period - when the full costs of the conflict become more apparent - its ability to back up its initial claims about hidden weapons with evidence could be important in determining future levels of support both abroad and at home.
"At this point, [finding weapons of mass destruction] is not essential to the public's continuing support," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. "But it probably would be essential to a retrospective confidence that the war was necessary once we get into the more difficult postwar phase."
To some extent, it may already be too late to win over critics in the international community, weapons or no weapons, say experts. Much of the opposition in Europe and the Middle East "has to do with the fact that this is being done by the world's superpower," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The discovery of banned weapons "probably won't change that."
And some experts note that opposition to the war is so strong and suspicion of US motives so pervasive that many in the international community may question any major weapons discoveries that are made.
"Even if large amounts of these weapons were found, I could imagine the public in Germany and around Europe questioning whether the finds were true or simply planted evidence," says Jens Van Scherpenberg, a security expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
Some war opponents may even excuse Iraq's possession of banned weapons as the country's only means of standing up to American aggression. "In France, there are people who think Saddam Hussein had some reason to want to hide his arms, if that was the only way to confront American might," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a senior fellow at the French Institute of International relations in Paris.
While the discovery of weapons may do little to win over critics, some analysts say a failure to uncover them could intensify international opposition to the war. "You would get a reverberation from abroad - the I-told-you-sos, saying that the US didn't have the sort of evidence they claimed to have," says Eric Larson, an expert on public opinion and war at RAND. Some of this criticism could seep into US public opinion, he says.
Certainly, at the start of the conflict, finding weapons of mass destruction was a top priority for most Americans as well as for the international community. A Gallup poll taken just after the fighting began found that only 38 percent of Americans thought the war would be justified if the coalition did not uncover any forbidden weapons. But in a new Gallup survey, that number jumped to 58 percent.
To some extent, this shift may reflect that the hunt for weapons has moved to the back burner, as the military - and the media - has focused on more immediate battle objectives. The shift may also have been hastened by the rhetoric of US officials, who in speeches and press briefings have moved away from emphasizing the importance of disarming Iraq to focusing on the liberation of the Iraqi people.
Some analysts argue that uncovering weapons of mass destruction was never a top priority for Americans, and that most will remain supportive of the war regardless of the outcome of the weapons hunt. "There's really only one non-negotiable thing that the US has to accomplish," says Mr. Larson. "And that is getting rid of Saddam and his regime."
Yet others believe that the current lack of demand for weapons evidence merely reflects an overall "rally effect," in which the public is inclined to support the president and the troops, and is loath to question the purpose of the conflict.
"Once you have a kind of investment - once blood has been spilled - there is going to naturally be a tendency to not say that it was done in vain," says Mr. Kull.
Polls show that the public still largely expects chemical and biological weapons will be found. According to a recent Los Angeles Times survey, 75 percent of Americans are confident that coalition troops will uncover weapons of mass destruction.
And as the rally effect wears off, the search for weapons may reemerge as an important focus in the postwar period - particularly since it was a key component behind many people's original decision to support the war, Kull says. Many Americans overcame their initial uneasiness about invading without UN support by concluding that the US was acting in self-defense: "The public had to kind of stretch to get there, but that was a key element in their coming round," he says. If no evidence of forbidden weapons emerges, that argument may no longer hold up.
Indeed, one place where finding WMDs is still important is at 10 Downing Street. "It will be very embarrassing for [British Prime Minster Tony] Blair if they are not found," notes Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
Among Americans who approve of the war in Iraq, disarmament is listed by 86 percent as a 'major' reason to oust Saddam Hussein. But high percentages also see other reasons as major:
Disarmament of Iraq 86%
Iraq's ties to groups like Al Qaeda 80
Regime change 79
Liberation of Iraq 74
Iraq poses an imminent threat to U.S. interests 72
Iraq poses a threat to US-friendly Arab nations 66
Iraq poses a threat to Israel 55
Source: Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, April 1-6