Where, oh where are Iraq's chemical weapons? Here's one theory as to why those notorious weapons haven't been used...or found.


Sure, the U.S. government and military say they didn't expect chemical weapons to be used or found this quickly (ten days into the war). But news reports belie that.

First, U.S. forces took a site at which, we heard, intelligence agencies were almost sure they'd find such weapons. A search turned up nothing.

Then the media trumpeted the discovery of what was said to be a previously unknown chemical plant--built of adobe, hard to see from the air. A strong argument for the need of an invading army! But further investigation was required to determine whether chemical weapons were actually being produced there.

The follow-up story received less play. The plant had been known to weapons inspectors all along. U.S. investigators found that it had indeed produced chemical weapons--but not in the last five years. That was exactly what the weapons inspectors had concluded.

A fact we seldom hear: according to former chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter, Iraq's chemical weapons had a shelf life of only about five years. Nothing older than that would be usable now.

A few days ago, the media reported U.S. claims that the Iraqis were putting a chemical-laced, toxic paste on some road or bridge they expected the Americans to take. A chemical weapon!

Then the subject was dropped.

I don't know where the road or bridge was, but I'd guess the Americans reached it and found no toxic paste. The Iraqis certainly wouldn't have applied such a paste to a surface they thought they'd still control a week later; nor would the media have let the matter drop if the question hadn't been resolved.

So perhaps--as Scott Ritter insists--there are no chemical weapons.

But if that's the case, why does U.S. officialdom seem genuinely convinced they exist? And--disclaimers notwithstanding--surprised they haven't turned up yet?

Much intelligence information comes from defectors and traitors. It's bought and paid for. Some sellers may be principled opponents of Saddam's regime, but others are only interested in their payday. They have a strong incentive to say what the buyer wants to hear.

Is that enough, though, to account for such a whopping U.S. misjudgment? I don't think so.

Here's another possibility.

Let's suppose Iraq no longer has any weapons of mass destruction.

And its government concluded months ago that the Bush administration was determined to invade and try to conquer their country.

If President Bush and his advisors realized Iraq didn't have WMD, they'd invest more time in establishing a credible link with al-Qaida to serve as justification. If necessary, they'd fake it. Real or a well-constructed fake, such a link would be next to impossible to disprove. And nothing would carry more weight with the American people.

I suggest, therefore, that the Iraqi government itself fed U.S. intelligence agencies "evidence" it still had WMD. Even as it was publicly--and truthfully--denying it had them! The Iraqis gambled that if that was the most heavily promoted pretext for war, their non-use of such weapons and an invading army's failure to find them would convince the world the U.S. had made a horrific mistake. Would that happen in time to save Saddam's regime? Maybe; it was a chance worth taking.

In this scenario, how can we explain the chemical-weapons protective suits found by American and British forces? That's easy. The Iraqis deliberately left protective gear for the invaders to find, so they'd think Iraq planned to use chemical weapons and would be forced to wear their own heavy, awkward protective gear into combat.

If Iraqi resistance had crumbled in a matter of days, with few casualties, and the populace had rushed to embrace the Americans as "liberators," it might not have mattered if those Americans never found WMD. The search could have been dragged out, its importance played down. Ultimately, it would have been forgotten.

But with the protracted bloodbath we're seeing, no one is going to forget that supposed casus belli. If war rages on and on with the Iraqis not using proscribed weapons and the Americans not finding them, there will be enormous pressure on the U.S. to admit its mistake and pull out. If the U.S. actually "wins"--at the cost of a country's having been destroyed, with tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars lost--and then can never find WMD, George W. Bush will be lucky if he suffers no worse fate than impeachment. World scrutiny will be too intense to permit any faking of finds.

I suspect Mr. Bush and his cronies are already starting to sweat.