Iraq arms hunt sows cynicism

A new team heads to Iraq this week to continue the search for banned weapons.

A growing furor over the reasons for invading Iraq is threatening to undermine the credibility of the US-British coalition and risks shattering an uneasy truce in international relations between supporters and opponents of the war.

The conspicuous absence of a "smoking gun," despite assiduous efforts to locate Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), is raising hackles in countries which supported the war - not to mention in those implacably opposed to it.

The coalition allies are this week dispatching a new, 1,300-strong team of experts to Iraq to step up the search for banned weapons. The specialists are expected to interrogate former Iraqi officials, interview key Iraqi scientists, and comb through documents which might shed light not only on weapons, but on links between Saddam Hussein's regime and terrorist organizations.

With no banned weapons unearthed so far in Iraq, accusations are escalating that pre-war intelligence was hyped to provide a cast-iron pretext for war.

International cynicism about the motives for the war is already growing. In London, a YouGov poll published Monday in The Daily Telegraph shows that only 38 percent of respondents believe that WMD provided the main reason for going to war. A full 73 percent now believe it was all about regime change.

Two of Prime Minister Tony Blair's former cabinet colleagues have suggested the public was misled over the reasons for the war. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook has called for a public inquiry, arguing that Britain was "conned" into a war by a "phantom" threat.

In Washington meanwhile, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said his panel - possibly in conjunction with the Senate Intelligence Committee - will hold hearings on the US failure to find evidence of banned weapons. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Sunday, Senator Warner stressed that he remains "of the opinion there has been no deception by the administration" but added that "the situation is becoming one where the credibility of the administration and Congress is being challenged."

Forced to backpedal, leaders in London and Washington have produced strikingly different responses. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says Saddam's supposed arsenal may have been destroyed. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has said WMD was chosen as a casus belli purely because it was the one factor everyone could agree on.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, has stuck to his guns. "I stand absolutely, 100 percent behind the evidence, based on intelligence that we presented to people," he said Monday at the G-8 summit in Évian, France, adding that it was "completely and totally false" that intelligence was doctored.

Yet a volley of media reports on both sides of the Atlantic is beginning to allege just that: that intelligence was "leveraged" and that even some political leaders had prewar doubts about the extent of the dangers posed by Saddam's weaponry. They suggest that intelligence from bodies like the CIA was "cherry-picked" to bolster the case for going to war.

"There was nothing there about an imminent justifying threat or a substantive threat," says Dan Plesch, an international-relations and security expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. "The only question remains now [is] whether there was any latent capacity. But the case for attack was based on imminent real capability," says Mr. Plesch, author of a weekend exposé in The Guardian newspaper that alleged that Jack Straw and Colin Powell expressed serious reservations about flimsy WMD intelligence in the run-up to crucial UN Security Council debates on Iraq.

Mr. Plesch says the outcry over the missing WMD is raising serious concerns among allied countries who supported the war in good faith. Leaders like John Howard of Australia, Jose María Aznar of Spain, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark - who backed the coalition despite opposition at home - face acute political embarrassment.

Elsewhere, in the so-called new Europe countries that backed the war, a certain exasperation is setting in. Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz summed it up best when he said that "as far as public opinion is concerned, it would be better that we find them (WMD) as soon as possible."

Plesch says the allies undermined the international system by "crying wolf," and endangered national security by playing fast and loose with intelligence.

In countries that opposed the war, meanwhile, the failure to produce a smoking gun has prompted a mixture of anger and righteous indignation. Germany's development minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, said recently that the growing doubts about Hussein's weapons program proved that "the world was deceived."

A diplomatic source notes that the intelligence process is always open to a certain amount of subjectivity. "In these cases there is always an element of telling people what they want to hear," the source says. "Plus, No. 10 [Downing Street] is full of its own Middle East experts, policy advisers, and spinners, and they are the ones interpreting the intelligence."

CIA director George Tenet has defended his agency, saying: "The integrity of our process was maintained throughout, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong."

Anthony King, professor of government at Britain's University of Essex says that failure to find WMD is resulting in a lack of trust in the government and a wider international rift. "It is quite clear [that] the fact that WMD have not so far been found means that, of course, the countries that opposed the war, notably Germany and France, will feel vindicated," King says. "It will keep the rift wide open."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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