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Weapons Reports Called Lacking

Military nominee says U.S. intelligence on Iraq was 'perplexingly incomplete.'

June 26, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction was "perplexingly incomplete," Gen. John P. Abizaid, President Bush's nominee to head the U.S. Central Command, told a Senate committee Wednesday.

"Intelligence was the most accurate that I've ever seen on the tactical level, probably the best I've ever seen on the operational level, and perplexingly incomplete on the strategic level with regard to weapons of mass destruction," Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Abizaid's comments during confirmation hearings came as the Bush administration faces greater scrutiny from Congress on the decision to go to war. Lawmakers are questioning experts behind closed doors and poring over documents to determine whether the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein or pressured intelligence analysts to skew their reports. In Britain, a parliamentary inquiry is examining whether Prime Minister Tony Blair's government did the same.

Both governments have denied any wrongdoing.

As U.S. and allied forces prepared to invade Iraq, Abizaid told senators, he asked his staff at the U.S. Central Command's temporary headquarters in Qatar, "Is there anybody around this table who believes we will not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?" No one said no, he recalled.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Gen. John Abizaid -- Two recent Section A articles referred incorrectly to a position once held at the U.S. Military Academy by Gen. John Abizaid, the new commander of U.S. Central Command. From 1997 to 1999, Abizaid served as commandant of the corps of cadets at the academy. A June 26 article said Abizaid had served as commander of West Point, and a July 8 article said he was a former commandant of the academy.

And as U.S. forces moved north toward Baghdad, "I thought as we crossed what we termed the red line that we would overrun artillery units that had chemical warheads," the general said.

Abizaid, who was second in command to Gen. Tommy Franks during the war, said he could not explain why banned weapons had not been found despite nearly 1,000 visits to suspect sites.

"It is perplexing to me, Senator, that we have not found weapons of mass destruction, when the evidence was so pervasive that it would exist," he said. "I can't offer a reasonable explanation.... I don't know, and I think that we won't know for a while."

Both the British government and the Bush administration argued before the war that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and a program to develop nuclear weapons and that these posed such an immediate threat to its neighbors and the United States that war was necessary to disarm the country.

U.S. officials have scaled back those claims in recent weeks and now increasingly argue that Hussein's regime instead planned to reconstitute its unconventional arms programs if U.N. sanctions were lifted.

Evidence for that argument was strengthened Wednesday when the CIA confirmed a CNN report that a former Iraqi nuclear scientist, Mahdi Shukur Ubaydi, had led intelligence officials to a cache of nuclear-related components and a 2-foot stack of documents he buried in 1991 under a rosebush at his Baghdad home.

The materials were from Iraq's vast but unsuccessful nuclear weapons programs of the 1980s. The cache had been hidden illegally from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who were responsible for dismantling Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons infrastructure after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Iraq's nuclear weapons effort was in effect destroyed by 1998, according to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency.

Ubaydi said the buried components were "part of a secret high-level plan to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program once sanctions ended," a U.S. intelligence official in Washington said.

"This is significant, but it doesn't prove Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program," the official said. "But their existence validates our long-standing view that Iraq had hidden nuclear technology."

The official said the components appeared to be from a sub-critical gas centrifuge machine, a highly technical system used to enrich uranium as fuel for nuclear weapons. He said the documents included blueprints, reports and technical diagrams that "related to centrifuge design, construction and operation."

The official said Ubaydi has left Iraq and is cooperating with U.S. intelligence, but he is not in U.S. custody.

At the congressional proceeding, Abizaid's remarks fueled increasing criticism from Democrats over the administration's justification for going to war.

"I've never believed the assertions about nuclear capability. I've never believed the assertions about the capability of being able to disseminate, in ways that would kill large numbers of American people or any other citizens, those chemical weapons they had.... I never saw any evidence of this massive biological capability that we were told or implied that they had," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I believe they hyped that, and I believe they hyped that for a specific reason: to create a sense of urgency."

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