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Questions still remain as U.S. tries to build case against Iraq

Monday, December 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Today's claims about Iraq could become tomorrow's call to arms. But not all the statements coming from the Bush administration have been supported by evidence, and some that haven't are central to the question of whether Americans should go to war.

The overarching claim, that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, may have the weight of probability behind it, but it has yet to be backed by proof shared with the public.

Behind that is a cast of supporting allegations, some veering off into murky territory.

Human rights monitors, for example, say it is news to them that when Iraqi soldiers captured by Iran in the 1980s returned from that war, President Saddam Hussein ordered their ears cut off, as the Pentagon stated.

When President Bush flatly asserted about Saddam, "He possesses the most deadly arms of our age," he seemed to ignore the consensus that Iraq does not have the weapons of Armageddon -- nuclear ones -- however actively it may be pursuing them.

A decade ago, Americans preparing for their first war against Iraq were shocked when a Kuwaiti girl, testifying to Congress, said she saw Iraqi soldiers occupying her country take infants off of their respirators and let them die.

The story quickly became part of the first President Bush's campaign to win public support for the war.

Only after the war did the story fall apart and the witness' true identity -- the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States -- become known.

Urging caution

With that in mind, Joe Stork, a Middle East monitor for Human Rights Watch, urged the government not to stretch its claims of Iraqi atrocities, because doing so can undermine confidence in carefully documented reports of genuine abuses.

"I do think the human rights abuses in Iraq are systematic and serious," said Stork, whose group investigates mistreatment of citizens worldwide. "This is one of the worst governments in the world. There is absolutely no need to exaggerate."

On the crucial question of Iraqi weapons, knowledge of Saddam's past chemical and biological stockpiles, combined with shadowy actions since the world last had a good look around there, leads many analysts to think he is capable of causing huge destruction now.

But U.N. inspectors are still inspecting, some suspicions remain suppositions, and U.S. allies are waiting for a clincher.

"So far the inspectors have found nothing, and the U.S. has produced nothing," said Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East analyst for the liberal Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. "I'm not prepared to support a war on spec."

Other analysts put more weight behind U.S. allegations that Iraq has regenerated its biological weapons capabilities and may have chemical weapons, which it used in the past, as well.

But the indictment offered by Washington last week, accusing Iraq of being in "material breach" of the U.N. disarmament resolution, rests not on what has been uncovered in the inspections but, in large measure, on what was omitted in Iraq's report on its weapons inventory.

Among the administration's points:

--Satellites have picked up on construction of an unknown nature at previously bombed weapons sites.

--Iraq has offered no proof that it has destroyed a long list of highly destructive weapons it acknowledged having had before.

--Iraq has imported suspicious materials that could advance its attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

On other fronts, U.S. officials have made several charges without offering support in the past few weeks.

For example, intelligence officials said Iraq has an audacious plan to destroy its own food sources, power supplies and oil fields, and blame America for it, if war against U.S. forces does not go well -- all for the purpose of turning international opinion against Washington. They refused to describe their evidence.

Government sources also said, in leaked comments, that Islamic extremists affiliated with the al-Qaida network might have taken possession of the deadly chemical weapon VX while in Iraq. The claim weakened under examination.

U.S. officials have tried before to establish a connection between Iraq and the terrorist network that attacked America.

In this case, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would not talk about any Iraq-terrorist VX transaction but said: "I have seen other information over a period of time that suggests that could be happening."

But a variety of counterterror and defense officials said later they had no credible evidence that Iraq supplied the nerve agent to al-Qaida operatives.

Questions also have been raised about claims made in U.S. radio broadcasts to Iraqi soldiers and citizens. One was the ear-cutting claim.

Referring to the Iran-Iraq war, one new broadcast proclaims: "When the Iraqi soldiers that were taken prisoner were returned, Saddam ordered their ears cut off as punishment for being captured."

Pentagon officials would not verify the claim.

In fact, a 1994 investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Commission took note of reports that doctors were carrying out a decree that military deserters and evaders have their ears amputated.

The report did not find that loyal Iraqi troops who had been captured in the Iran war years earlier were similarly punished. "That's quite a different assertion," said Stork. "I frankly doubt if it's true."


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