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Bush says report on arms vindicates war
( 2003-10-04 14:32) (Agencies)

US President Bush said Friday that the report by his chief weapons inspector in Iraq justified the American-led invasion of the country even though no actual weapons had been found.

Speaking emphatically on the South Lawn of the White House, Mr. Bush said the preliminary findings of active research projects in Iraq and efforts to obtain missiles proved that "Saddam Hussein was a danger to the world."

Some Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, seized on the report as evidence that Mr. Bush had exaggerated the Iraqi threat. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the failure to find weapons had called into question how prewar estimates by the administration and spy agencies "could have been so far off."

But Mr. Bush and top aides, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, tried throughout the day to reclaim the upper hand in that debate, portraying the report, by David Kay, who leads the Iraq Survey Group of weapons inspectors, as a vindication, not a setback. Mr. Powell said the findings had left the administration "even more convinced with the Kay report that we did the right thing."

Administration officials pointed out that, in his report, Dr. Kay said his team had uncovered evidence that Iraq negotiated a deal with North Korea to acquire missile technology, a transaction that a senior administration official said on Friday was apparently never detected by American intelligence agencies. But when it came time for the North Koreans to deliver, they said Iraq was under too much American scrutiny. By that time, the Iraqis had already paid $10 million to North Korea, and asked for their money back, Dr. Kay said.

The money had not been refunded by the time the war began, he said.

Facing reporters Friday morning, Mr. Bush looked angry at moments. His aides said later that he had been reacting to headlines emphasizing that Dr. Kay's search had so far yielded nothing to indicate that Mr. Hussein possessed the kinds of illicit weapons the administration cited as a principal reason for going to war.

"His interim report said that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program spanned more than two decades," Mr. Bush said, citing Dr. Kay's public testimony on Thursday and a classified annex provided to the White House and some lawmakers. "That's what he said."

Mr. Bush added: "He says that the W.M.D. program involved thousands of people, billions of dollars and was elaborately shielded by security and deception operations that continued even beyond the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In other words, he's saying Saddam Hussein was a threat, a serious danger."

Mr. Bush appeared alongside Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York police commissioner, who went to Iraq to help it develop a postwar police force. Mr. Kerik said that in his time in Iraq he found "there was one weapon of mass destruction ?he's no longer in power."

"I think that's what counts today," he added.

But many Democrats said instead on Friday that the report demonstrated that Iraq did not pose nearly so urgent a threat as the administration had argued.

Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is the House minority leader, said after a meeting with Dr. Kay on Friday morning that "it was clear to me that there was no imminence of a threat for weapons of mass destruction."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who was a prominent critic of the war, said that after listening to Dr. Kay he was "convinced more than ever" that the administration's prewar claims that Iraq posed an urgent threat were unfounded.

The administration got some support from Dr. Kay, who in an hour-long conference call with reporters sought on Friday to shift the focus toward the discovery by his group of evidence suggesting Mr. Hussein had been intent on retaining some weapons capacity..

He listed evidence he said showed Iraq was still trying to deceive the West right up until the war began. The evidence of Iraqi deception is particularly strong in the areas of biological weapons and missile technology, he noted. He pointed to sections of the declassified version of his report made public Thursday that he said provided proof of Mr. Hussein's continued interest in developing weapons, perhaps once international sanctions were finally lifted.

He also revealed that two Iraqi scientists had been shot, and one killed, after cooperating with American forces in Iraq, in order to underscore the fear and intimidation that still grips former members of the Hussein government, preventing cooperation with the weapons hunters.

Dr. Kay said his team was still trying to figure out what happened to the weapons programs, and had several theories. He said he and his lieutenants meet weekly to go over each hypothesis and test it against available evidence.

The theories now include the idea that Mr. Hussein did not have ongoing weapons programs and was bluffing the world in order to appear more dangerous; that the weapons or equipment were moved to another country; that the weapons remain well hidden in Iraq; that some weapons were produced in another country; and that scientists duped the Iraqi leader into thinking they had developed weapons when in fact they had not.

As part of the White House effort to take control of the debate, Mr. Kerik described videotapes he had seen of Mr. Hussein's agents torturing Iraqis, including stuffing hand grenades in their pockets as they were interrogated and then watching "the people disappear."

Accounts of torture and abuse have now risen to the top of the administration's list of reasons that Iraq was invaded, ahead of the threat of weapons.

Asked about a New York Times/CBS News poll published Friday showing that public confidence in his handling of foreign policy crises ?and Iraq in particular ?had fallen substantially, Mr. Bush dismissed the question, saying, "I don't make decisions based upon polls. I make decisions based upon what I think is important for the security of the American people."

Despite Dr. Kay's efforts to shift the focus from the failure to find illegal weapons, Democrats seized on his report to criticize the administration for exaggerating the threat.

"There is no evidence that he had those capabilities," Mr. Levin said. But Mr. Powell argued that Dr. Kay's report could be seen as proof that Mr. Hussein was trying to retain some ability to produce weapons.

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