Does anyone seriously believe that in the event of U.S. invasion, "discovery" of Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction won't be long delayed? The stakes are simply too high. It won't take much: a blueprint or two, a few canisters noisily identified as chemical or biological agents, a "facility" for production of nuclear munitions.

Already there are vague, unconfirmed stories of preliminary manufacture of the necessary smoking guns that can be deployed by undercover teams as U.S. troops advance and then dramatically disclosed to the hungry press. For those who entertain doubts about the likelihood of the United States or its ally Britain manufacturing necessary "evidence," consider the recent explicit charge of forgery leveled by Mohammed ElBaradei, the chief UN inspector looking for evidence of nuclear capability in Iraq.

Here's the relevant passage, from his testimony on behalf of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A) before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) last week:

"With regard to uranium acquisition, the I.A.E.A. has made progress in its investigation into reports that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger in recent years. This investigation was centered on documents provided by a number of states that pointed to an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the sale of uranium between 1999 and 2001.

"The I.A.E.A. has discussed these reports with the governments of Iraq and Niger, both of which have denied that any such activity took place. For its part, Iraq has provided the I.A.E.A. with a comprehensive explanation of its relations with Niger and has described a visit by an Iraqi official to a number of African countries, including Niger, in February 1999, which Iraq thought might have given rise to the reports.

"The I.A.E.A. was able to review correspondence coming from various bodies of the government of Niger, and to compare the form, format, contents and signature of that correspondence with those of the alleged procurement-related documentation. Based on thorough analysis, the I.A.E.A. has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents, which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger, are in fact not authentic. We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded."

Now the documents that ElBaradei labels as forgeries were part of a dossier prepared by British intelligence services and given by Britain to the United Nations and to the United States last year. Here's what Ray Close, a former CIA officer with particular experience in the Middle East, concludes:

"Quite clearly, the more one thinks about this intrigue, the more obvious it becomes that someone was responsible for a deliberate intelligence disinformation campaign targeting the United Nations with an aim toward padding the evidence supporting an American-British invasion of Iraq. That is a world-class criminal act, a felony of historic proportions, by any definition. We should not let it be swept under the carpet."

Either these forged documents were prepared by the U.S. or British secret services, or passed along by the actual forgers, who would, of course, have been parties eager to foment war. As Close points out, one pertinent question is that if the forgers were freelance, did the intelligence services of the U.S. and U.K. detect the fraud but suppress their knowledge of it?

It won't be the first time a government has knowingly used a fraudulent pretext. A supposed attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin was seized upon by the Johnson administration to push through congressional endorsement of the Vietnam war. Though widely suspected at the time, it took about 35 years for the fraud to be fully exposed.

So we have been warned and may confidently expect the requisite discoveries to be made in Iraq, in the likely event of attack. Can we expect any vigilance from the Fourth Estate? Not much. Across the past few weeks, the Bush/Powell rationales for attacking Iraq for possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction has been spectacularly demolished, not least by U.N. inspectors Mohammed ElBaradei and Hans Blix. It has become surreal to follow the determination with which most of the mainstream U.S. press ignores these demolitions, not least the important piece by John Barry in Newsweek detailing the debriefing of Saddam's son-in-law Hussein Kemal, who defected in the mid-1990s with profuse documentation of Saddam's destruction of biological and chemical stocks.

It was a nice coincidence to turn from the stories of Stalin's death being hastened by doses of rat poison to George Bush's recent press conference, if only because Stalin's regime is usually, and correctly, associated with the absolute repression of dissent in the press. But there were portions of the recent press conference that surely would have made the Georgian tyrant nod in approval, as Bush worked his way through a list of approved questioners, winching out his formulaic replies.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.