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Bush: Iraqi arms project will emerge "with time"
( 2003-06-10 14:28) (7)

Despite a lack of evidence, President Bush insisted Monday that Baghdad had a program to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, seeking to rebut critics who charge his administration doctored evidence to justify an invasion of Iraq.

"IRAQ HAD A weapons program," Bush said. "Intelligence throughout the decade shows they had a weapons program," Bush told reporters during a meeting of his Cabinet. "I am absolutely convinced that with time, we'll find out they did have a weapons program."

Weeks of searches in Iraq by military experts have not validated the administration's portrayal of Iraq's cache of weapons. Alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons have not turned up, nor has significant evidence of a nuclear weapons program.

Bush was asked whether American credibility was on the line in the hunt for illicit weapons. In answering, he pointed to the outcome of the war, not the weapons search.

"The credibility of this country is based upon our strong desire to make the world more peaceful, and the world is now more peaceful after our decision," he said.

At a briefing for reporters a short time later, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denied that administration officials were backing off from previous statements that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction by now saying that experts were looking for evidence of "programs" to develop them.

"Programs, of course ... but it's the weapons themselves (that the administration expects to be found)," he said. "... You heard it yesterday, you heard it today."

Bush also defended a second aspect of the intelligence that provided the justification for the war with Iraq - that al-Qaida had a presence in Baghdad.

"History will show, history and time will prove that the United States made the absolute right decision in freeing the people of Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein," Bush said.


The New York Times reported Monday that two captured al-Qaida leaders have denied that the terrorist organization worked with Saddam's regime.

Citing senior intelligence sources it did not identify, the newspaper said captured al-Qaida members Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed made the claims when they were interrogated separately by the CIA.

According to the Times, Zubaydah told his questioners that al-Qaida considered working with Saddam's regime, but that Osama bin Laden rejected the idea because he did not want to be beholden to the Iraqi leader.

Bush's comments followed a round of television appearances Sunday by senior administration officials, all of whom said the White House did not hype intelligence about the threat from Iraq's suspected banned weapons in order to justify the war to oust Saddam, Bush administration officials said Sunday.

Two months after the major fighting in Iraq ended, the United States has yet to find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, although it did find two trailers it judged to be mobile laboratories for producing bioweapons.

The absence of a "smoking gun" has raised questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence before the war and whether the administration exaggerated the urgency of an Iraqi threat.


But Secretary of State Colin Powell said the absence of evidence does not change the facts.

The Iraqis "have had weapons throughout their history. They have used chemical weapons. They have acknowledged that they had biological weapons. And they never accounted for all that they had or what they might or might not have done with it," he said.

Powell told reporters that the paper trail and interviews with Iraqis involved in the weapons programs would lead to the discovery of evidence.

"I think all the documents that are now coming forward and people who are being interviewed will tell us more about what they have hidden and where they have hidden it," Powell said.

Powell also dismissed allegations that Vice President Dick Cheney, during several visits to the Central Intelligence Agency, applied political pressure to get intelligence officials to exaggerate their reports of the Iraqi threat.

"False," Powell said.

"Simply not true," added Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser.

When asked where the weapons were, Rice said: "This is a program that was built for concealment. We've always known that. We've always known that it would take some time to put together a full picture of his weapons of mass destruction programs."


Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said Sunday he thought the weapons would be found. But, he added, if Bush, the United Nations and international leaders were "all duped, or if they didn't have the right information, then this is the most colossal hype that ever was."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wants a full-blown congressional investigation.

"I think that the nation's credibility is on the line, as well as his," Levin said, referring to President Bush. "This nation has got to lead in this world. If we're going to really lead in a war against terrorism, we must have people who believe in us, who, when we say that something is true, believe that it is true.

"And there is real doubt now that that is the case, because there's too much evidence that intelligence was shaded."

Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said a congressional investigation is premature. "There's a little tad bit of politics being played here," Roberts, R-Kan., told CNN's "Late Edition." "I think it's very, very counterproductive."


In an effort to reinvigorate the hunt for banned weapons, the Pentagon has assembled a new team to conduct the search, including dozens of former U.N. arms inspectors and a big intelligence component, a U.S. official said on Monday.

The Iraq Survey Group, which will take charge as early as this Saturday, replacing the U.S. military's 75th Exploitation Task Force, said it would take a more investigative approach.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not identify the inspectors but called them "individuals who have unique expertise that we certainly could use."

Terence Taylor, who served as a chief U.N. arms inspector in Iraq from 1993-97 and helped uncover Iraq's biological weapons program in 1995, said it was "hugely important" that the Iraq Survey Group include "a large number of people with all the historical experience with previous inspections."

The United States and Britain justified their invasion of Iraq partly on the existence of chemical, biological and possibly even nuclear weapons - using intelligence data that is now being increasingly questioned.

The United States forced the end of U.N. weapons inspections before going to war, against the wishes of the inspectors, who had asked for more time.

"They did not have patience for that," the lead inspector, Hans Blix, said in a telephone interview broadcast on Colombian radio on Friday. "However, of course what I notice now is that when the American inspectors do not find anything, then it is suggested we should have patience."

Blix, who led inspection teams from Nov. 27, 2002, to March 18, said the jury was still out on whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein claimed all such weapons were destroyed in 1991. Blix has said the last significant discoveries by inspectors were in 1994.

The administration began building its case against Iraq last August in a series of speeches by Cheney. "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on Aug. 26. "There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us."

"We do know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18. "His regime has amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons - including VX, sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas."


Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, discussed the matter at a Capitol Hill news conference Friday as the administration scrambled to respond to news reports about excerpts from a September 2002 DIA report on facilities and other pieces of Iraq's arms-building infrastructure.

Jacoby said his agency concurred in an intelligence community consensus last fall that Iraq had a program for weapons of mass destruction. But the DIA was unable to pinpoint any locations.

"We could not specifically pin down individual facilities operating as part of the weapons of mass destruction program, specifically the chemical warfare portion," Jacoby said at a news conference with Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Stephen Cambone, the Pentagon's intelligence chief.

They spoke after the Senate Armed Services Committee met privately with Jacoby, Cambone and an unidentified CIA representative to discuss prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs.

In his description of the still-classified DIA report, Jacoby drew a distinction between the level of certainty about Iraq's pursuit of weapons and the existence of actual chemical weapons.

"As of 2002, in September, we could not reliably pin down - for somebody who was doing contingency planning - specific facilities, locations or production that was under way at a specific location at that point in time," he said.

The report "is not in any way intended to portray the fact that we had any doubts that such a program existed," he said.

Rumsfeld recently raised the possibility that Iraq destroyed such weapons before the war started March 20. He also has said he believes some remain and will be discovered when U.S. search teams find knowledgeable Iraqis who are willing to disclose the locations.

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