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Search for Iraq's Banned Weapons Continues

President Bush is set to announce Thursday that major combat operations in Iraq have ended. But the main rationale for the war: finding and destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, has yet to be accomplished amid increasing questions about whether any banned weapons will be found.

Twice this week, British Prime Minster Tony Blair faced questions from the press and from the opposition in parliament, both wondering whether Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction will ever be found.

In the months before the war, the British and U.S. governments said Iraq had tons of such weapons which they warned threatened the world and had to be destroyed.

"I am absolutely convinced and confident about the case of weapons of mass destruction," said Mr. Blair. "Before people, let us say, crow about the absence of weapons of mass destruction, I suggest they wait a little bit because there is a very deliberative process in place here."

In February, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a detailed presentation to skeptical members of the U.N. Security Council, complete with audio intercepts and satellite photos, to make the case that Iraq had a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agents. He also said there were factories for biological weapons, some of which were mobile.

But United Nations weapons inspectors, who spent nearly four months in Iraq before the war, were unable to confirm the existence of chemical or biological weapons. And four weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, no chemical or biological weapons have been found. Last week, President Bush for the first time raised the possibility that Iraq may no longer have them.

"Whether he destroyed them, moved them or hid them, we're going to find out the truth and one thing is for certain, Saddam Hussein no longer threatens America with weapons of mass destruction," said Mr. Bush.

U.S. officials say American weapons investigation teams have been deployed throughout Iraq and that they have a list of some 1,000 suspicious sites that need to be methodically explored. David Kay, a chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq during the early 1990s, is confident the banned weapons will be located, but whether all of them will be found is the question.

"The Iraqi regime understood individually that it was going to history. You saw the way it dissolved," he said. "Now you ask, if you had access to a chemical or a biological weapon or the technology, you're worried about your future, you knew you did not have a future in a free Iraq, would you pick up some of that, take it and try to sell it?"

Since the fall of Baghdad, Bush administration officials have been stressing other aspects of the war, such as the liberation of the Iraqi people, not the hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

This was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld greeting U.S. troops at Baghdad's airport Wednesday.

"There's still work to be done. The remnants of that regime need to be removed from every corner of this country," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld greeting U.S. troops at Baghdad's airport Wednesday. "We still have to find and deal with the remaining elements of the former regime. We have to root out and eliminate terrorist networks operating in this country. We have to help Iraqis restore their basic services."

With thousands of American troops in Iraq and more on their way, the Bush administration is confident U.S. forces will find Iraq's banned weapons and opposes a return of United Nations weapons inspectors to resume the search.

But under a 1990 Security Council resolution, sanctions against Iraq, which the Bush Administration wants lifted immediately, can not end until United Nations weapons experts determine the country is free of all banned nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The Security Council would have to pass a new resolution to change that and just this week, Russia said it would oppose lifting the sanctions until U.N. weapons inspectors certify Iraq as free of weapons of mass destruction.