The commander of the US weapons hunters in Iraq says he's certain the US invasion has ended a program capable of producing Iraqi chemical and biological weapons. But Colonel Richard McPhee says his teams have found no such weapons thus far.
And members of McPhee's team and US defense officials say that banned arms may never be found in Iraq.
This marks a shift in expectations to confirming an Iraqi capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, rather than actually finding them. Before the war, US leaders said they knew such weapons existed in Iraq, and war was necessary to root them out.
"There's no doubt in my mind that what we have stopped here in Iraq is a WMD program that was being run, that was capable of producing chemical weapons, biological weapons as needed by [Saddam] now or in the future," McPhee said.
Asked for the evidence, he replied, "The expertise and knowledge of the people, the scientists, dual-use capability facilities. I believe clearly there was a capability here that would have kept going."
The recent UN inspectors never declared they had uncovered a program designed to produce weapons of mass destruction.
A top operations officer for McPhee's 75th Exploitation Task Force said on Friday he would be surprised if the team does not find the infrastructure and program for "demand production of biological weapons" -- in other words, not production, but a capacity to produce quickly on demand.
As for finding actual weapons, the operations officer said it may turn out that no weapons of mass destruction will be found.
The expert and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a need to protect their identities for continuing work in intelligence and other sensitive areas.
After a month's field operations from Kuwait, McPhee's task force has moved into one of Saddam's palace complexes outside Baghdad, a sprawl of sumptuous homes and garish palaces -- all emptied by looters, some damaged by US bombing -- set around a sparkling artificial lake.
The 75th "XTF" began work with a list of 900 Iraqi sites where inspectors might look for evidence of banned weapons work, led by 90 high-priority sites. Of those priority locations, 75 have been examined thus far, McPhee said on Thursday, with nothing of major significance reported.
The US military's advance through Iraq in late March and early April produced repeated false alarms from combat units that thought they had found banned arms.
Suspected chemical weapons in metal drums turned out to be pesticides; suspicious white powder that made headlines was simply explosives; cyclosarin and mustard-gas-weapons agents were actually rocket fuel.
In fact, McPhee's experts said they haven't once had to don their most protective hazardous-materials outfits, because credible threats never materialized.