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|Bush Backs Away from Iraq WMD Certainty
Jan 27, 1:15 PM (ET)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the wake of a top expert's conclusions that Iraq had no large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, President Bush on Tuesday dropped his previous certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the reason given for the U.S.-led invasion.
The shift came as Bush met Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a close war ally, and as some of his top aides planned to meet a top U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, about a possible lead role for him in postwar Iraq.
The conclusions from David Kay, who resigned last week as the chief U.S. weapons investigator in Iraq, raised questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence before the war and whether the Bush administration hyped it to justify its case for war against Saddam Hussein. It was likely to resonate on the campaign trail as Democrats seek to replace Bush.
Bush, in his first comments on Kay's findings, did not rule out that unconventional weapons might be found in Iraq but neither did he repeat his earlier certainty that weapons would be found. He said the team of weapons searchers still there, called the Iraq Survey Group, was still looking.
"First of all I think it's very important for us to let the Iraq Survey Group do its work so we can find out the facts, compare the facts to what was thought," Bush told reporters with Kwasniewski at his side in the Oval Office, a fire crackling behind them against the winter chill.
Bush said last March in making the case against Iraq that "intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
He has since tempered that to say that he believed Iraq was pursuing weapons programs. "We acted in Iraq, where the former regime sponsored terror, possessed and used weapons of mass destruction, and for 12 years defied the clear demands of the United Nations Security Council," he said in a Sept. 7 speech.
On Tuesday, he expressed "great confidence" in the U.S. intelligence community and said intelligence agencies around the world shared the same view that Iraq possessed unconventional weapons.
Bush said that in any event, toppling Saddam was a just cause given his refusal to comply with U.N. demands in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a grave and gathering threat to America and the world," he said. "And I say that based upon intelligence that I saw prior to the decision to go into Iraq, and I say that based upon what I know today. And the world is better off without him."
Kwasniewski, for his part, said that months before the war he met with Hans Blix, who served as the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, and that Blix told him Iraq was ready to produce unconventional weapons if necessary to keep Saddam in power. Blix was unable to find the weapons.
The White House believes Kay has helped the administration's case against Iraq. Kay told The New York Times Iraq attempted to revive its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2000 and 2001 and was actively working to produce biological weapons using the poison ricin until the U.S. invasion last March.
Democrats want an independent probe to look at what went wrong with U.S. intelligence and whether the Bush administration manipulated it to justify an invasion.
On postwar Iraq, the United States wants Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister who just finished a two-year stint as chief U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, to play a leading role in a U.N. effort to assess whether elections can be held in Iraq by mid-year.
Brahimi, 70, now a senior adviser to Annan, has resisted going to Baghdad to lead the team and negotiate with Iraq's powerful Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wants a full-scale election before the United States would prefer.
Brahimi later in the day was to meet Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, Robert Blackwill, one of Rice's senior officials, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Bush administration officials said.
Brahimi was at the White House last week for talks with Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as Rice and Blackwill.
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