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Rice admits US doubts on WMD

London Guardian | Jan 30 2004

The British government was today facing renewed pressure over the case for war with Iraq after the Bush administration admitted for the first time that Saddam Hussein may never have held stocks of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, one of US president George Bush's most trusted lieutenants and a strong advocate of the invasion of Iraq, made the concession during a series of interviews on major American news programmes.

Backing off from claims that months of inspections by the US-led Iraq Survey Group would unearth hidden caches of illegal weapons, Ms Rice appeared to be swayed by recent testimony from David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector, who resigned his post last weekend and claimed that such weapons probably never existed.

But she continued to defend the war itself, claiming that Saddam Hussein remained a "gathering threat" who the US could not afford to leave in power.

"What we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground.

"With Saddam Hussein, we were dealing with somebody who had used weapons of mass destruction, who had attacked his neighbours twice, who was allowing terrorists to run in his country and was funding terrorists outside of his country," Ms Rice told CBS news.

She added: "Given that, and his history of refusing to account for his weapons of mass destruction and his efforts to conceal his programmes, this was a very dangerous man in a very dangerous part of the world.

"And the president of the United States had no choice but to deal with that gathering threat and to American interests and to the interests of our friends abroad."

Ms Rice's word prompted fresh calls for the British government to clarify its position on Iraq's weapons. Former Foreign Office minister Doug Henderson told the Press Association: "Speculation will continue in this country about this issue unless the government clarifies its position.

"Parliament should be told if Britain shared intelligence before the war with the United States and, if so, to what extent; if Britain accepted that its intelligence information contained the same errors as the US; and does Britain now accept, as the US government now seems to believe, that weapons of mass destruction will not be found?"

Ms Rice's continued to defend the war despite Mr Kay's calls for an independent inquiry into the intelligence used as the basis for war. In testimony to a congressional committee this week, Mr Kay accused the CIA and other US intelligence agencies of misjudging the extent and sophistication of Saddam's weapons programmes prior to war.

"It turns out we were all wrong, and that is most disturbing," he said.

But Ms Rice stressed that no inquiry would be considered until the Iraq Survey Group had finished its inspections and reported back from Iraq - mirroring the words of Tony Blair, who has faced similar calls this week against the backdrop of the Hutton Report.

"We're going to need to go back and compare what we thought we would find with what we found," she told the ABC network.

"And at that time, I think there are important questions about how we deal with the proliferation problem with highly secretive regimes that are using dual-use technologies to acquire weapons of mass destruction."

One year ago the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, presented a dossier of evidence to the United Nations security council alleging that Saddam had an extensive programme of seemingly legitimate civilian nuclear, chemical and biological laboratories capable of being adapted to produce illegal weapons.

However, subsequent investigations have unearthed no real evidence of large-scale weapons productions. The now infamous British government claim in September 2002 that Saddam had an arsenal of weapons ready to be deployed in 45 minutes was the high watermark of official rhetoric.

In his state of the union address earlier this month President Bush referred instead to evidence of "weapons of mass destruction programme-related activities".
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