WASHINGTON – The new inspector leading the search for Iraqi weapons says his job is to seek answers to questions that have dominated much of his career.
"My goal is to find out what happened on the ground. What was the status of the Iraqi weapons program? What was their game plan? What were the goals of the regime? To find out what is the ground truth," said Charles Duelfer (search), named Friday to replace David Kay (search) as head of the U.S. weapons inspection team in Iraq.
Duelfer, the No. 2 U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq for much of the 1990s, will lead roughly 1,400 scientists and other experts of the Iraq Survey Group (search) combing through documents, searching facilities and interviewing Iraqis to determine the capabilities of the fallen government.
Kay spent nearly eight months searching for, but not finding, Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction. Kay came home to the United States for the holidays and did not return to Iraq. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
At the World Economic Forum (search) in Davos, Switzerland, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told reporters that the outgoing Kay's findings should be taken seriously.
After almost eight months searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the outgoing chief inspector said he found evidence of programs to develop weapons but no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. Kay also said deposed Iraqi president Saddam had no large-scale production program in the 1990s.
Kay "is an experienced inspector. He had worked with the U.N. before, and ... I think his report and what he says should be taken seriously," Annan said.
The secretary-general also said he wasn't surprised at Kay's departure. "He gave his report to the U.S. authorities and had not been back to Iraq for a while, so I saw this as a natural order of events," Annan said.
Also at Davos, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (search), said of Kay's departure, "That's his personal decision."
"There will be a verdict on this weapons of mass destruction, and for many Iraqis it's not a major issue," Zebari said. Saddam "had those weapons. He developed them, used them with impunity and he got away with it. He admitted having them and gave information. Where they have gone, where they have disappeared, we don't know."
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview Wednesday with National Public Radio, said the administration still believes weapons of mass destruction will be found.
Duelfer, 51, said he sees the job as an opportunity to pursue questions unanswered during his seven years tracking Saddam's weapons program as the top American on the U.N. team enforcing the 1991 cease-fire agreement.
Before last year's invasion, Duelfer took a hard line, consistently arguing that the Iraqi government posed a significant threat due to Saddam's dedication to the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
"I can only underline the view that, all other things being equal, the current leadership in Baghdad will eventually achieve a nuclear weapon, in addition to their current inventories of other weapons of mass destruction," Duelfer told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2002.
Since Saddam's fall last spring, however, Duelfer has grown more skeptical that weapons will be found. In a column published by The Washington Post in October, he said Saddam had long differentiated between actually retaining weapons and maintaining a capability to produce them.
The absence of weapons stocks "does not mean Saddam did not pose a WMD threat," Duelfer wrote.
"But clearly this is not the immediate threat many assumed before the war," he said. "The WMD threat appears to have been longer term. Assuming this finding does not change, it will be very important for the Iraq Survey Group to establish when all agents and weapons were eliminated."
In a conference call on Friday, Duelfer said his earlier comments were those of an outsider, and his job now is to be an investigator.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector, said Duelfer had gained respect for his work at the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq. He said there was a perception that Kay was more of an ideologue, convinced the weapons existed.
"Having Duelfer go in gives me more confidence that they can wrap this up, and we can have some closure. Duelfer has much more experience as an inspector," Albright said.