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U.S./Iraq: White House Admits Uranium Claim Was Based On Faulty Intelligence

The White House has acknowledged for the first time that U.S. President George W. Bush used faulty intelligence reports to help justify the war against Iraq. The admission has fanned a brewing controversy on both sides of the Atlantic over whether intelligence was manipulated to bolster the case for war and has prompted calls by Democrats for a broad investigation.

Prague, 9 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With evidence of weapons of mass destruction yet to turn up in Iraq, the debate over whether the U.S. and British governments manipulated intelligence to justify their invasion has snowballed.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been under intense pressure at home and faced a parliamentary inquiry over his handling of intelligence.

Until now, U.S. President George W. Bush had escaped such scrutiny. But this week, the White House acknowledged for the first time that documents cited by U.S. President George W. Bush linking Iraq to a bid to buy uranium in Niger had been forged.

In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said that, based on recent intelligence, Iraq was trying to acquire the materials to build a nuclear weapon. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said.

Michael Anton, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, told reporters yesterday that when Bush made his claim, the White House was not aware that the documents were fraudulent. He also said Bush's claim was based partly on intelligence of other Iraqi bids to buy uranium elsewhere in Africa, but that these details were not included in his January speech.

Today, Bush was asked about the controversy during a visit to South Africa. He did not specifically address the issue but defended his decision to topple Hussein.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace, and there is no doubt in my mind the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power," Bush said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, concluded just days before the start of the war in Iraq in March that the documents were fraudulent. Their origins are unclear.

The White House's acknowledgement of the mistake sparked immediate calls by opposition Democrats for a broad inquiry into the administration's prewar handling of Iraqi intelligence. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, called it "a very important admission. It is a recognition that we were provided faulty information, and I think it is all the more reason why a full investigation of all the facts surrounding this situation be undertaken."

Congressional Republicans countered that the administration is simply being "forthright" in making the admission and that -- in any case -- toppling Hussein was the right thing to do.

Last weekend, the White House came under fire from Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Gabon who was sent to Africa in 2002 by the Central Intelligence Agency to investigate the alleged Iraqi link.

Wilson told "The New York Times" and the U.S. television network NBC that he had concluded in a report that it was very doubtful that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger.

Moreover, Wilson says his report was sent to both Congress and the White House and that Vice President Dick Cheney's office even inquired about the Iraq-Niger link, a claim the White House denies.

A CIA official told the BBC today that Wilson's report was sent to the White House by March 2002, nearly a year before Bush's speech. The Bush administration says it gets hundreds of such reports every day.

Turning up the heat, Wilson told NBC on 6 June, "Either the administration has some information that it has not shared with the public or yes, they were using the selective use of facts and intelligence to bolster a decision in a case that has already been made."

Wilson is not the only one to call into question the White House version of events.

Henry Waxman, a Democratic U.S. congressman, recently made public the contents of a letter he received earlier this year from the IAEA. In it, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog said that since December 2002, it had sought information from Washington to substantiate the Iraq-Niger link. But the administration did not reply until 4 February, a week after Bush's State of the Union speech.

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department provided a copy of its written reply to the IAEA to the Committee on Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives. In its letter, the State Department warns about the Iraq-Niger link, saying it "cannot confirm these reports" and has "questions regarding some specific claims," indicating the administration, early on, had doubts about its intelligence on Iraq.

Republicans, however, who control both houses of the U.S. Congress and largely set the legislative agenda, insist Bush's mistake was inconsequential.

Tom DeLay, a Republican leader in the House, said the U.S. did not justify invading Iraq with what he called one little "mistake." He said Washington's reasons for waging war were sound -- and morally justified.

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Blair strongly defended his own prewar handling of intelligence before a parliamentary committee.

"You would almost think that this question of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction was some invention of the CIA and British intelligence. There is no doubt whatever that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction," Blair said.

After an investigation, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament yesterday exonerated Blair's office from charges that it exaggerated the Iraqi threat to justify the war.

But it also concluded that a government dossier gave undue prominence to claims that Iraq could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes, and said Blair misrepresented information in another dossier largely copied from a graduate student's thesis.