In Washington, in the tense months before war in Iraq, Charles Duelfer (search) was confident. "Of course he is developing his weapons of mass destruction," the American arms expert wrote of Saddam Hussein.

In Baghdad, however, Hans Blix (search) was much less convinced. The U.N. weapons inspector, on the eve of the conflict, remarked sadly on the likelihood that armies would be "waging the war at a tremendous cost, and in the end find there was very little."

In the end, as a hurricane distracted Americans, as terrorist car bombings and U.S. air strikes bloodied Iraq, the findings of a Duelfer-led investigation were quietly leaked in Washington. And after 16 months of trying, what his teams have found is less than little.

In fact, the only unconventional weapon turned up in Iraq wasn't turned up by the Americans at all, but by the other side, Iraq's shadowy resistance. In May, in an incident causing no serious injuries, insurgent fighters in Baghdad rigged an old artillery shell as a roadside bomb, apparently unaware it was loaded with sarin nerve agent (search).

Otherwise, two or three stray shells have been discovered with traces of degraded agent — far short of the 100-500 tons of usable chemical weapons that Colin Powell (search) warned of on Feb. 5, 2003, as he sought a U.N. blessing for the U.S.-British invasion.

"Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option," the U.S. secretary of state declared that day to the U.N. Security Council.

President Bush's rationale for war — that Iraq's alleged doomsday arms posed an imminent threat — faded steadily in the months after the March 2003 invasion, as official U.S. rhetoric switched from "stockpiles" of weapons to "programs" to make them.

By Thursday, as Duelfer's upcoming report was broadly outlined to reporters in Washington, the focus had switched again, to Iraqi "intent" before the invasion — to what were described as hopes among Iraqi leaders during the Saddam regime of someday reviving Iraqi weapons-making.

Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group, some 1,200 military and intelligence specialists and support staff, had focused much of its effort on Iraq's "dual-use" chemical and biological industries — factories and laboratories whose equipment and products might be converted quickly to making weapons.

In March, in an interim report to U.S. senators, Duelfer gave an example: An agricultural center south of Baghdad that was researching bacteria potentially useful in developing anthrax weapons. But he offered no evidence of plans to use the material for anything but its standard commercial purpose, as a pesticide.

As for chemical weapons, every industrial nation, rich or developing, has plants producing chlorine, phenol and other compounds with myriad commercial uses that also could help make sulfur mustard, sarin or other poison gases.

An international watchdog agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, counts 4,000-5,000 such dual-use plants in scores of countries. Again, no evidence has emerged that the Iraqis planned to make weapons in theirs.

Even if they did, it would not have been easy.

Since 2002, official U.S. statements have consistently obscured the fact that the Iraqis would have remained under close, on-scene monitoring for years to come, if Blix's U.N. inspection regime had not been short-circuited by the American invasion.

Once U.N. inspectors certified that Baghdad's weapons work had ceased, U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq would have been lifted. But then the Security Council would have imposed an open-ended verification regime, whose free-ranging inspectors would have kept watch on Iraq's military-industrial complex, aided by air and water sampling technology, satellite and aerial surveillance, and monitoring of imports.

But war did intervene, and now it is Duelfer's work that looks open-ended.

The U.S. group's final report originally had been expected last March. On Thursday, reporters were told that even this new 1,500-word document may not be final, and there is no guarantee it will be released in much detail before the Nov. 2 presidential election.

In 700 inspections across Iraq, beginning in November 2002, Blix's U.N. experts also had turned up nothing. He hoped their work might stave off a costly war. In the end, in official American eyes, it counted for little.

"There was a very consistent creation of a virtual reality," he now says of the U.S. attitude. "And eventually it collided with our old-fashioned, ordinary reality."