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U.S.: White House Faces Questions Over Iraqi Weapons Report

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A long-awaited report by the U.S. administration's chief weapons inspector in Iraq -- due out as soon as next week -- is not expected to provide concrete evidence that Baghdad possessed banned weapons. The White House -- which had hoped the report would show evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction -- is now scrambling to play down the significance of the report.

Washington, 26 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Three weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Americans on national television that weapons of mass destruction -- the main reason Washington went to war with Baghdad -- would be found in Iraq.

Powell told NBC TV's "Meet the Press" program that an upcoming report by David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, would show there is "no question that such weapons exist, existed, and so did the programs to develop one."

But just a few days later, the Bush administration now acknowledges that Kay's report will offer no concrete evidence that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, pointing to a series of United Nations resolutions during the last decade aimed at disarming Iraq, this week told a briefing that the entire international community believed that Hussein had such weapons.

"Remember, it's only been, what, four and a half months since the end of major combat operations. Dr. Kay is the one that's assigned to oversee the Iraq Survey Group and pull together a complete picture. The president made it very clear, 'I want you to be thorough, I want you to pull together a complete picture.' And then it can be presented and we can know the truth. But we will know the truth," McClellan said.

At a time when his popularity ratings are dropping in the polls, the news is widely seen as a blow to U.S. President George W. Bush, who had said on the eve of the Iraq invasion in March that Hussein "continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

Kay is expected to present his findings to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet and other officials soon. But the CIA says it is still unclear how much of the interim report, which is expected to provide some "documentary evidence" of possible weapons programs, will be made public.

Kay, whose team numbers some 1,500 experts and analysts, is then expected to continue his investigation in Iraq.

Unidentified Pentagon officials have told the U.S. media that Kay's team may have found possible evidence of Iraqi preparations to secretly produce chemical and biological weapons. But it's unclear if there is evidence that weapons were ever produced.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration this week faced further questions about Iraq's alleged weapons when Powell tried to explain remarks he made at the start of the Bush administration, some two years before the Iraq invasion.

Speaking in Cairo in February 2001, just three weeks into his job as America's top diplomat, Powell said Iraq had not developed "any significant capacity" in weapons of mass destruction and could not attack its neighbors with conventional weapons.

The remarks by Powell were dug out by an Australian reporter and presented on British television earlier this week.

Powell, speaking to reporters at the United Nations in New York, said yesterday he had never changed his assessment of the Iraqi threat, but suggested intelligence on that threat may have changed.

"He was a threat then. The extent of his holdings were yet to be determined; it was early in the administration. And the fact of the matter is, it was long before 9/11 [11 September 2001 terrorist attacks]. So a lot changed between February 2001 [and the invasion], but I don't find anything inconsistent between what I've said then and what I've said all along," Powell said.

Bush, asked about Powell's statements in early 2001, said Powell had clearly called Hussein a threat. But Bush did not address the substance of Powell's remarks -- his dismissal of Iraq as a threat with weapons of mass destruction or a threat to its neighbors.

Bush said U.S. defense strategy simply had to change after 11 September 2001, when Islamic terrorists killed 3,000 people in America:

"'9/11' changed my calculation. It made it really clear we have to deal with threats before they come on our shore. For a long period of time, we thought that oceans could protect us from danger. And we learned a tough decision on September 11. It's really important for this nation to chase down and deal with threats before they materialize," Bush said.

News of the Powell comments and Kay's report coincided with the release of a poll showing Bush's approval ratings falling to 49 percent -- their lowest level since he took office in January 2001. The NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll also showed 52 percent of Americans disapproving of Bush's handling of the economy.

With the White House now seeking $87 billion to rebuild an Iraq, Democrats gearing up for next year's elections sense Bush may be becoming vulnerable on national security, which so far has been regarded as his strongest issue.

At a briefing yesterday, McClellan was grilled by reporters who suggested America may actually be less safe after the war in Iraq, since neither Hussein nor his alleged weapons of mass destruction have been found.

One reporter asked: "How can the president say, 'One thing is for sure: Saddam will never transfer weapons of mass destruction to terrorists,' when you don't know where [McClellan interrupts] Saddam is and you don't know where the weapons [are]?"

"Because he's been removed from power," McClellan replied. "And it's a matter of time before we find him."