With the U.S. military already drawing up plans for an invasion of Iraq, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began the public debate on whether to commit American troops to a final battle in which Saddam Hussein might fire off his stockpile of chemical or biological weapons, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.
Former top U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler told the committee on Wednesday Iraq's weapons program is an active threat but the international community should give Saddam Hussein another chance to let inspectors in "before taking other measures."
"I think we've got to go a little further way if for no other reason than to make clear to the world that we went the full distance to get the law obeyed and arms control restored before taking other measures," Butler said.
The former head of the United Nations inspection agency assigned to eliminate Saddam's weapons in the 1990s said Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs were still active and he may even be close to developing a nuclear bomb.
But with the world on edge over possible U.S. action after repeated remarks by President Bush, Butler doubted Saddam would make sufficient conciliatory gestures to avoid an American attack.
During the Gulf War Saddam had the equipment and knowledge but not the material for making a nuclear weapon, he said. "The question now is: Has Iraq acquired the essential fissionable material either by enriching indigenous sources or by obtaining it from external sources? And I don't know the answer."
The Senate committee was exploring the threat posed by Iraq, whether military force should be used to remove Saddam from power, whether U.S. allies would back a military strike and who would succeed Saddam if he is ousted.
"In short, we need to weigh the risks of action versus inaction," said the committee chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del.
Retired General Joseph Hoar said if Iraq had used chemical weapons in the 1991 war the U.S. estimated it could have suffered 10,000 casualties. Depending on how good Iraq's weapons are today, a biological attack could have apocalyptic results.
"The possibility of him using it goes up considerably, if in fact the regime is about to fall, and I think certainly that's a grave risk to take in the event of an invasion," he told CBS News.
Three weeks ago Defense Secretary Rumsfeld directed his military commanders to draw up a detailed operations plan for removing Saddam from power. General Tommy Franks, who would command the attack, is scheduled to brief the president on the plan next week.
Biden said he did not ask Bush administration officials to testify to avoid interfering with their internal debate on Iraq, but he said would likely call them for a future hearing. He urged the administration to lay out in advance how it would deal with the aftermath of a military campaign to remove Saddam, citing U.S. actions in Afghanistan to make his point.
"The war was prosecuted exceptionally well in my view, but the follow-through ... has, in my judgment, fallen short," he said. "It would be a tragedy if we removed a tyrant in Iraq, only to leave chaos."
The administration says Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction that could threaten Iraq's neighbors and the United States. While offering no evidence of an Iraqi link to the Sept. 11 attacks, officials have said Saddam has ties to terrorists and could share his weapons with them.
But Butler said he doubts that would happen, even though Iraq has trained terrorists and carried out its own terrorist operations.
"I suspect that given his psychology and aspirations, Saddam would be reluctant to share what he believes to be an indelible source of his power," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., told reporters Wednesday that he suspects members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda are in Iraq.
The issue is relevant to whether Mr. Bush would need to seek Congress' backing for a military campaign against Iraq. Democrats say Mr. Bush should seek a congressional resolution. But Lott noted that Congress has already authorized Mr. Bush to pursue al Qaeda.
Lott said seeking a congressional resolution would be like saying "Mr. Saddam Hussein, we're coming, we're coming, get ready."
But Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he is unaware of any intelligence that al Qaeda is in Iraq.
"It would be a big mistake for the president to act without Congress," he said. "There has to be a debate."
An Iraqi minister said on Wednesday that Baghdad would resist any U.S. military campaign and would "kick the United States out of the region" if attacked.
"The United States will be defeated and it will be kicked out of the region if it attacks Iraq," Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh said.
"It will be the end of the United States in the region," Saleh said.
Iraqis have been hit hard by U.N. sanctions imposed for Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Baghdad says more than 180,000 people, including about 80,000 children under five years of age, died in 2001 of diseases blamed on the sanctions.
The desert state, which has the world's second largest oil reserves behind Saudi Arabia, has been allowed to sell oil to buy food, medicine and other civilian goods under U.N. supervision since 1996.