U.S. intelligence analysts have reached a preliminary conclusion that Iraq's 12,000 page declaration of its arms programs does not account for materials used to make weapons of mass destruction. Those chemical and biological materials were identified as missing by weapons inspectors before they left Iraq four years ago. Analysts say if it is proven that Iraq has failed to comply with U.N. resolutions, President Bush could decide to go to war early next year.
American officials who have reviewed Baghdad's weapons declaration say much of it appears to be recycled from previous documents and despite the voluminous size of the report it contains little that is new.
The New York Times newspaper quotes one American official as saying there are "omissions big enough to drive a tank through."
During a recent forum on the Iraqi weapons declaration, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said Baghdad's apparent failure to provide current information on its weapons programs could speed up the timetable to war.
"I think that Saddam is not following a smart strategy. I think there is a cleverness to it," he said. "It puts us in a tough position, but because we realize that the position is only going to get tougher with time, I think the administration will make a decision shortly after the holidays to go to war and I think we will be at war this winter."
David Kay served as the United Nations Chief Nuclear Weapons Inspector in the 1990s, leading numerous inspections into Iraq following the end of the Persian Gulf War. He said that, while the weapons declaration may have lacked new information, Baghdad is cooperating with current weapons inspectors in an effort to buy time in the hope that support for a U.S.- led war will disappear.
"So I think what you are seeing is a strategy in which the Iraqis, as long as there is not a confrontation around a facility or a source of information that they do not desire and fear disclosing, will try to be Mr. Sunshine and all smiles," he said. "It is up to the United Nations to follow a strategy that in fact will get them there faster."
Kenneth Pollack, a former regional director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, said the Iraqis have become so adept at hiding their weapons of mass destruction, that it is highly unlikely the U.N. inspectors will find significant evidence that such ongoing programs exist.
"Even if the United States does have some juicy piece of intelligence, the idea that we are actually going to catch the Iraqis red handed seems extremely unlikely," said Mr. Pollack, who was also for seven years an Iran-Iraq analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "The Iraqis have simply gotten too good at hiding their weapons of mass destruction. There is a real risk in going down this path. Which is every time the inspectors go to a site and find the Iraqis cooperative and find the site clean, it reinforces the notion of those people around the world and in the United States who want to believe that the Iraqis are coming clean, that they are coming clean."
Analysts say the Bush administration now has at least three options.
The first is to continue with the current U.N. inspections while sharing intelligence with the inspectors on suspected weapons sites.
The second is to demand that Iraq give specific answers to questions about its weapons programs.
The third is to declare, after a careful review of Baghdad's weapons declaration, that Iraq is in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions and must be disarmed by the use of military force.
Analysts say if the third option is selected they expect a U.S.-led war against Iraq to begin early next year.