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   Jeff Jacoby
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Copyright Boston Globe

April 24, 2003

American troops in Iraq have yet to turn up a "smoking gun" -- a cache of forbidden chemical and biological weapons. Does it matter?

It certainly seems to matter to those looking for a reason to pronounce Operation Iraqi Freedom illegitimate. "With every passing day, American credibility is called into question," editorialized The New York Times on April 18. After all, "the chief justification for invading Iraq was to get rid of Baghdad's stores of chemical and biological agents and dismantle its effort to produce a nuclear bomb."

In a story headlined "A month of war, and still no illegal weapons found," The Philadelphia Inquirer cites unnamed "international critics" who say the failure to find Saddam's deadly arsenal "raises questions about the Bush administration's motives for going to war." It quotes a "senior administration official" as asking sheepishly, "If we never find any chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, how do we say, 'Oops'?" Over at the State Department, meanwhile, another anonymous source tells Time magazine, "The White House is screaming, 'Find me some WMD!' "

Now it is conceivable, if just barely, that when all is said and done, the search for Iraq's WMD -- "weapons of mass destruction" -- will turn up nothing. But it is much too soon to speculate. Coalition forces have been in Iraq, a country bigger than Germany, for only five weeks. There are more than 1,000 suspected storage and manufacturing sites to be examined and some 5,000 Iraqi scientists who were involved in chemical and biological warfare programs to interview. The surface has hardly been scratched.

Remember: If Saddam's regime had dismantled its stockpile of unconventional weapons as required by a long line of Security Council resolutions, the world would have known about it long ago. Baghdad was supposed to document the shutdown of its WMD facilities and account for its chemical and biological stocks; Hans Blix's job was simply to verify that the weapons were gone. But Iraq refused to provide that documentation. Instead it filed a 12,000-page sham filled with omissions, falsehoods, and irrelevancies. The only rational conclusion was that Saddam intended to keep his lethal materiel.

Did he trash his hoard of illegal weapons at the last minute? Judith Miller reported in the Times this week that a scientist claiming to have worked in Iraq's WMD program told US military personnel "that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began." The scientist reportedly led the Americans to a supply of chemical precursors for illegal toxic agents.

If the scientist is right, we'll know it in due course. If he's wrong, we'll know that too. There is only one good reason to be worrying now about the lack of a "smoking gun:" the fear that Saddam's supply of plague and poison may have fallen into dangerous hands -- or be under no one's control at all.

But in a larger, more crucial sense, all of this is beside the point. Whatever chemical, biological, or nuclear evidence coalition troops may find, they have already eliminated the real weapons of mass destruction: Saddam Hussein and his evil government.

It was Saddam and his circle of thugs who were responsible for the violent and often sadistic deaths of more than a million human beings. It was they who gassed men, women, and children en masse. It was they who hanged, shot, beheaded, and dismembered people for thinking the wrong thoughts, having the wrong friends, uttering the wrong words -- or for no reason at all. It was they who murdered the youngest and sickest of Iraq's people by embezzling tens of millions of oil-for-food dollars and spending them on obscene pleasure-palaces for themselves instead of medicine and bread for the weak and hungry.

A million deaths. And that doesn't include all the others left maimed and mutilated, the innocents blinded or broken for life. It doesn't account for the minds that shattered under torture or the families that were reduced to shreds. It leaves out the agony of the father whose child was burned alive to make him speak; the endless pain of the wife or daughter whose gang rape was carried out and videotaped on government orders; the emotional scar of those forced to watch as Saddam's agents fed their victims to wild dogs or slowly lowered them into vats of acid.

The threat posed by Saddam's pursuit of unconventional weapons was real. So was his support for terrorism, his record of aggression, and his flouting of UN mandates. Those were the formal grounds for war and they added up to a strong rationale for regime change in Baghdad.

But the best reason for destroying this dictator was that decent nations do not look the other way when human beings by the hundreds of thousands are being butchered and terrorized. Genocide and mass murder demand a response, and better a belated response than none at all.

It was not to find a "smoking gun" that America went to war. It was to crush one of the bloodiest tyrannies the modern world has known. The critics and faultfinders are busy, but time and distance will make it clear even to them that these last weeks have indeed been, in George W. Bush's words, "good days in the history of freedom."

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