WASHINGTON — Iraq had destroyed its illicit weapons stockpiles within months after the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and its capacity to produce such weapons had significantly eroded by the time of the American invasion in 2003, the top American inspector in Iraq said in a report made public Wednesday.
The report by the inspector, Charles A. Duelfer, intended to offer a near-final judgment about Iraq and its weapons, said Iraq, while under pressure from the United Nations, had "essentially destroyed" its illicit weapons ability by the end of 1991, with its last secret factory, a biological weapons facility, eliminated in 1996.
Duelfer said that even during those years, Saddam Hussein had aimed at "preserving the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction when sanctions were lifted." But he said he had found no evidence of any concerted effort by Iraq to restart the program.
The findings uphold Iraq's prewar insistence that it did not possess chemical or biological weapons. They also show the enormous distance between the Bush administration's own prewar assertions, based on reports by American intelligence agencies and what a 15-month inquiry by American investigators found since the war.
Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, said he had concluded that between 1991 and 2003, Saddam had, in effect, sacrificed Iraq's illicit weapons to the larger goal of winning an end to U.N. sanctions. But Duelfer also argued that Saddam used the period to try to exploit avenues opened by the sanctions, including the oil-for-food program, to lay the groundwork for a long-term plan to resume weapons production if sanctions were lifted.
The American inspector presented his conclusions to Congress on Wednesday, including highly charged public testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. With Iraq figuring prominently in the last dash toward the presidential election, Democrats argued that the report had undermined the administration's case for war, while the White House and its Republican allies called attention to elements in the report that highlighted potential dangers posed by Saddam's government.
"There is no doubt that Saddam was a threat to our nation, and there is no doubt that he had WMD capability, and the Duelfer report is very clear on these points," said James Wilkinson, a White House deputy national security adviser, using the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction.
The three-volume report, totaling 918 pages, represented the most authoritative attempt so far to unravel the mystery posed by Iraq between 1991 and 2003, beginning with the point after the Persian Gulf War when Iraq still possessed chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear-weapons program. The conclusions suggest that the main war aim cited by the White House in March 2003 — to disarm Iraq, which American intelligence agencies said possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear program — was based on an outdated view of Iraq's weapons stockpiles.
At the time of the American invasion, Duelfer said in the report, Iraq did not possess chemical and biological weapons, was not seeking to reconstitute its nuclear program, and was not making any active effort to gain those capabilities. Even if Iraq had sought to restart its weapons programs in 2003, the report said, it could not have produced militarily significant quantities of chemical weapons for at least a year, and it would have required years to produce a nuclear weapon.
"Saddam Hussein ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the gulf war," Duelfer said in the report. It said that American inspectors in Iraq had "found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program."
After a closed briefing by Duelfer to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, described the report as "a devastating account."
"The administration would like the American public to believe that Saddam's intention to build a weapons program, regardless of actual weapons or the capability to produce weapons, justified invading Iraq," Rockefeller said in a statement. "In fact," he continued, "we invaded a country, thousands of people have died, and Iraq never posed a grave or growing danger."
In accounting for what happened beginning in 1991, Duelfer said that Saddam had made a fundamental decision after the Persian Gulf War to get rid of Iraq's illicit weapons and accept the destruction of its weapons-producing facilities as part of an effort to win an end to sanctions imposed by the United Nations to achieve those ends.
Although Duelfer concluded that Saddam intended to restart his programs, the report acknowledged that conclusion was based more on inference than solid evidence. "The regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of W.M.D. after sanctions," it said.
The report notes that its conclusions were drawn in part from the interrogation of Saddam in his prison cell outside of Baghdad. Duelfer, a special adviser to the director of central intelligence, said he had concluded that Saddam had deliberately sought to maintain ambiguity about whether Iraq possessed illicit weapons, primarily as a deterrent to Iran, Iraq's adversary in an eight-year war in the 1980s. It was not until a series of meetings in late 2002, just months before the American invasion, that Saddam finally acknowledged to senior officers and officials of his government that Iraq did not possess illicit weapons, Duelfer said.
Duelfer's report said American investigators had found clandestine laboratories in the Baghdad area used by the Iraqi Intelligence Service between 1991 and 2003 to conduct research and to test various chemicals and poisons, including ricin. As previously reported, it said those efforts appeared to be intended primarily for use in assassinations, not to inflict mass casualties.
Duelfer said in his report that Saddam never acknowledged in the course of the interrogations what had become of Iraq's illicit weapons. He said that American investigators had appealed to the former Iraqi leader to be candid in order to shape his legacy, but that Saddam had not been forthcoming. The report said that interviews with other former top Iraqi leaders had made clear that Saddam had left many of his top deputies uncertain until the eve of war about whether Iraq possessed illicit weapons. It said that Saddam seemed to be most concerned about a possible new attack by Iran, whose incursions into Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 were fended off by Baghdad partly with the use of chemical munitions.
Duelfer said in the report that Iraq tried to maintain the knowledge base necessary to restart an illicit weapons program. He said that Iraq had essentially put its biological program "on the shelf," after its last production facility, Al Hakam, was destroyed by U.N. inspectors in 1996, and could have begun to produce biological questions in as little as a month if it had restarted its weapons program in 2003.
But the report said there were "no indications" that Iraq was pursuing such a course, and it reported "a complete absence of discussion or even interest in biological weapons" at the level of Saddam and his aides after the mid-1990s.
The report will almost certainly be the last complete assessment by the team led by Duelfer, which is known as the Iraq Survey Group. But Duelfer said that he and the 1,200-member team would continue their work in Iraq for the time being. He said the team had not completely ruled out the possibility that some Iraqi weapons might have been smuggled out of Iraq to a neighboring country, such as Syria.
The report did revise several earlier judgments, including a report by the CIA in May 2003 that said mysterious trailers found in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 were intended for use in a biological warfare program. Duelfer said that the trailers could not have been used for that purpose, and that the trailers' manufacturers "almost certainly designed and built the equipment exclusively for the generation of hydrogen," upholding claims by Iraqi officials that linked the trailers to weather balloons used for artillery practice.