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Next moves for US on Iraq weapons list

Barring a smoking gun, US likely faces a long process in trying to prove pattern of deceit.

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Iraq's submission of a 12,000-page declaration of its weapons inventory presents the US with both opportunities and pitfalls as it tries to keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein to reveal everything he has and keep its own options for war open.

Tuesday US officials will start combing through the Iraqi report - a veritable Manhattan phone book in Arabic and English, clogged with information on every last chemical factory that churns out rubber sandals - to look for inconsistencies and omissions.

In theory, the Bush administration will compare what's in the declaration to its own purported "solid" intelligence of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. It could then point out these discrepancies to United Nations weapons inspectors, or even go for a dramatic return, evidence in hand, to the UN Security Council. To the extent the US finds clear and substantial contradictions, it would help buttress its case domestically and internationally for the necessity of "regime change" in Iraq.

In practice, however, the process will likely be more difficult than that. For one thing, no one knows just how much evidence the US has of Iraqi nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, though that can be a tactical advantage for Washington. Will there be a "smoking gun" omission, for instance?

If there isn't - and many experts don't think there is - the US would have to prove a pattern of deceit. That risks getting bogged down in minutiae. By pointing out every last petri dish and aluminum tube that could be used for military purposes, the Bush administration could get involved in a PR war with Mr. Hussein over details that detract from the overall threat the US believes he represents.

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