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Bush Tempers Talk of Weapons

Saying he is 'convinced' U.S. will find proof that Iraq had an illegal arms program, the president stops short of asserting devices will be found.

June 10, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Monday he is "absolutely convinced" that the United States will find proof that Iraq had an illegal weapons program, but he stopped short of saying that actual biological or chemical agents will be uncovered.

Bush's comments were among the most forceful he has made on the subject since the postwar search for banned weapons began to emerge as a troubling political issue for the White House.

But his remarks were also carefully calibrated, in contrast to categorical statements he and other senior administration officials made before the war asserting Iraq had illegal weapons.

"Iraq had a weapons program," Bush said Monday in a brief exchange with reporters at the White House. "Intelligence throughout the decade showed they had a weapons program. I am absolutely convinced, with time, we'll find out that they did have a weapons program."

The emphasis on the word "program" marks a subtle shift by the president, whose administration made Iraq's alleged stocks of banned weapons the centerpiece of its case for going to war against Saddam Hussein.

The White House could point to recovered documents, seized equipment and accounts from captured Hussein regime officials to make the case for the existence of an illegal weapons program. Despite two months of searching by U.S.-led forces, no illegal biological or chemical materials have been found.

Regime leaders had acknowledged that biological and chemical weapons were developed in the 1980s and early 1990s, but they claimed that Iraq shut down those programs and had no banned weapons when U.S.-led military forces attacked in March. Iraqi scientists currently in custody say the same, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Bush on Monday rejected suggestions that the failure to find banned weapons would undermine U.S. credibility.

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

Without prompting, the president also renewed assertions of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda -- another underpinning for the war.

Bush referred to Abu Musab Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda operative from Jordan who has been linked to the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in that country last year. U.S. intelligence officials have said Zarqawi operated in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, although there has been no definitive evidence that Hussein's government collaborated with Al Qaeda.

"Zarqawi's network inside of Baghdad ... ordered the killing of a U.S. citizen," Bush said. "Time will prove that the United States made the absolute right decision in freeing the people of Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein."

Before the war, Bush was often unequivocal in alleging that Iraq possessed banned weapons.

In a key speech in Cincinnati on October 7, Bush said that Iraq "possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons" and suggested it was perilous for the United States to delay disarming Baghdad.

"If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today -- and we do -- does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?" the president had said.

Bush voiced a similar assessment just days before the war. On March 17, he said 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."

Other Bush administration figures were equally unambiguous. Last August, Vice President Dick Cheney said that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Democrats on Capitol Hill have begun circulating some of these comments by e-mail, an indication that the administration's recent efforts to tinker with the terms of the debate is itself becoming an issue.

The failure to find any chemical or biological weapons has prompted some lawmakers to call for congressional hearings on whether or not U.S. intelligence broke down and whether information was manipulated to win support for the war.

After seeming to cast about for an effective response to the rising criticism, senior administration officials have begun to refine their message.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday that "any allegation that the intelligence [on Iraq] was politicized is, of course, just false."

Rumsfeld also said that the lack of definitive proof that Hussein is dead is making it more difficult to gather evidence of the existence of banned weapons and to quell attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq.

"To the extent it's not proven that he's not alive, there are a lot of people who might fear that he could come back," Rumsfeld said of Hussein. "And if they fear that he could come back, they might be somewhat slower in an interrogation to say what they know."

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