updated 1/17/2005 2:24:17 AM ET 2005-01-17T07:24:17

As the hunt for weapons of mass destruction dragged on unsuccessfully in Iraq, top Bush administration officials speculated publicly that the banned armaments may have been smuggled out of the country before the war started.

Whether Saddam Hussein moved the WMD — deadly chemical, biological or radiological arms — is one of the unresolved issues that the final U.S. intelligence report on Iraq’s programs is expected to address next month.

But intelligence and congressional officials say they have not seen any information — never “a piece,” said one — indicating that WMD or significant amounts of components and equipment were transferred from Iraq to neighboring Syria, Jordan or elsewhere.

Search draws to a close
The administration acknowledged last week that the search for banned weapons is largely over. The Iraq Survey Group’s chief, Charles Duelfer, is expected to submit the final installments of his report in February. A small number of the organization’s experts will remain on the job in case new intelligence on Iraqi WMD is unearthed.

But the officials familiar with the search say U.S. authorities have found no evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein transferred WMD or related equipment out of Iraq.

A special adviser to the CIA director, Duelfer declined an interview request through an agency spokesman. In his last public statements, he told a Senate panel last October that it remained unclear whether banned weapons could have been moved from Iraq.

“What I can tell you is that I believe we know a lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria. There was certainly a lot of traffic across the border points,” he said. “But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say.”

Last week, a congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said suggestions that weapons or components were sent from Iraq were based on speculation stemming from uncorroborated information.

White House pushed smuggling theory
President Bush and top-raking officials in his administration used the existence of WMD in Iraq as the main justification for the March 2003 invasion, and throughout much of last year the White House continued to raise the possibility the weapons were transferred to another country.

For instance:

  • Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in early October he believed Saddam had WMD before the war. “He has either hidden them so well or moved them somewhere else, or decided to destroy them ... in event of a conflict but kept the capability of developing them rapidly,” Rumsfeld said in a Fox News Channel interview.

    Eight months earlier, he told senators “it’s possible that WMD did exist, but was transferred, in whole or in part, to one or more other countries. We see that theory put forward.”
  • Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed concern the WMD would be found. However, when asked in September if the WMD could have been hidden or moved to a country like Syria, he said, “I can’t exclude any of those possibilities.”
  • And, on MSNBC’s “Hardball” in June, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said: “Everyone believed that his programs were more active than they appeared to be, but recognize, he had a lot of time to move stuff, a lot of time to hide stuff.”

Claims subside
Since the October report from Duelfer, which said Saddam intended to obtain WMD but had no banned weapons, senior administration leaders have largely stopped discussing whether the weapons were moved.

Last week, the intelligence and congressional officials said evidence indicating somewhat common equipment with dual military and civilian uses, such as fermenters, was salvaged during post-invasion looting and sold for scrap in other countries. Syria was mentioned as one location.

However, the U.S. intelligence community’s 2002 estimate on Iraq indicated there were sizable weapons programs and stockpiles. The officials said weapons experts have not found a production capability in Iraq that would back up the size of the prewar estimates.

Among a series of key findings, that estimate said Iraq “has largely rebuilt missile and biological weapons facilities damaged” during a 1998 U.S.-British bombing campaign and “has expanded its chemical and biological infrastructure under the cover of civilian production.”

Although the U.S. had little specific information, the estimate also said Saddam probably stockpiled at least 100 metric tons, possibly 500 metric tons, of chemical weapons agents — “much of it added in the last year.”

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