WASHINGTON — Here's the US government's bottom line: No, Iraq didn't have significant stockpiles of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons at the time of the US-led invasion last spring. But the concept of weapons of mass destruction was important to Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Hussein personally believes that WMDs saved his skin twice - first, when he used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and second, when their threat helped halt US troops short of Baghdad in the Persian Gulf War.
And what Hussein wants, Hussein tries to get, says the final report of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group. His country may have been boxed in by international sanctions, and he may have been delusional about its resources, but he himself represented a sort of WMD-in-waiting, eager to reconstitute his weapons programs in time.
"If you want to understand Iraq, you've got to understand Saddam," says a US official about the Survey Group's work.
The 1,500-page report made public Wednesday is the most comprehensive yet in a series of studies produced by the Iraq Survey Group beginning last year.
All have concluded that Iraq had no stockpiles of banned weapons in 2003 and had no ongoing large-scale effort to obtain any. Thus Iraq did not represent an imminent threat to the United States, as the White House insisted at the time of the US-led invasion.
The report "does reinforce what I think most people know by now - the premise of the war was unsound in terms of protecting us from WMD," says Hurst Hannum, an international law professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.
And it was UN-led international weapons inspections that helped convince Hussein to rid himself of WMD evidence. He destroyed weapons stockpiles in accordance with UN resolutions because he was afraid that if he did not, he would be found out.
"Despite all the naysaying and criticism of inspectors and the inspection regime ... [inspections] worked as well as you would have wanted them to work," says Jim Walsh, an international security expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
So, rather than cheat and mislead weapons inspectors, Hussein decided on another approach: getting sanctions lifted. His strategic approach to his WMD problem through the middle and late 1990s centered around a two-track effort to bust his sanction chains, according to the Iraq Survey Report.
The first track was by going along and trying to placate UN members. The second track was by subverting the oil-for-food program, to both siphon off as much cash as possible, and curry favor with other nations.
One source for these assertions is Hussein himself. In the course of its work, the survey group had access to the captured former leader of Iraq, who was apparently at least somewhat forthcoming about his WMD decisions and how he related them to his beliefs about Iraq's position in the world.
First of all, the weapons were obviously very important to him, according to an official with access to survey group documents. The Iraqi leader and his top generals believe that their long-range strikes with chemical warheads was what ended the Iran-Iraq war. They similarly appear to believe that in 1991 Hussein's order to disperse WMDs, and preauthorize their use if necessary, is what saved them from a final assault by the US on Baghdad.
Hussein's main strategic worry prior to the events that culminated in his ouster was Iran, not the US, according to a US official. Israel was second on the threat list. The US was third - apparently because Hussein thought the US would eventually decide to deal with him as a fact of Middle East life.
One FBI agent has been the deposed Iraqi leader's main debriefer. His main argument to Hussein, in turn, has been this: Talk to us and help shape your legacy. Otherwise, all your top aides, which are in our custody, will do the shaping for you.
"He was not loquacious on his WMD activities. He put in perspective how he viewed threats, his internal deliberations about how he viewed the weapons," says a US official.
While ridding himself of physical aspects of a WMD program, Hussein retained intellectual capability, in the form of scientists and other experts, maintains the report. He intended to reconstitute his programs at the proper time, to counter Iran's nuclear development, if nothing else.
That's a point President Bush raised in a speech Wednesday. Hussein "was a risk, a real risk," Bush said. "After 9/11 that was a risk we could not afford to take."
But Democrats conclude from the report of the Iraq Survey Group, headed by arms inspector Charles Duelfer, that Iraq was in fact a diminishing threat at the time of the US invasion, not a gathering one.
"Intentions do not constitute a growing danger," says Rep. Jane Harman (D) of California, a House Intelligence Committee member.