US inspector differs with Bush on Iraq weapons

Reuters

Wed 6 October, 2004

By Vicki Allen and Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq had no stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons before last year's U.S.-led invasion and its nuclear program had decayed, the chief U.S. weapons inspector says, contrary to pre-war assertions of the Bush administration.

President George W. Bush cited a growing threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as one of the main reasons for overthrowing President Saddam Hussein.

"I still do not expect that militarily significant WMD stocks are cached in Iraq," Charles Duelfer, the CIA special adviser who led the hunt for such weapons said in testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

He said Iraq's nuclear weapons program had deteriorated since the 1991 Gulf War, after which U.N. weapons inspectors conducted inspections, but Saddam did not abandon his nuclear ambitions.

"The analysis shows that despite Saddam's expressed desire to retain the knowledge of his nuclear team, and his attempts to retain some key par ts of the programme, during the course of the following 12 years (after 1991) Iraq's ability to produce a weapon decayed," Duelfer said.

The issue has figured prominently in the campaign for the November 2 U.S. presidential election, with Democratic challenger John Kerry saying Bush rushed to war without allowing U.N. inspections enough time to investigate Iraq's armaments.

"It is a very significant commentary on the mistaken case for war presented by this administration," Mike McCurry, a senior Kerry adviser, told reporters in Colorado. "It is very troubling that they could have been so wrong on something as fundamental as taking America to war."

Bush, who has given varying justifications for the war, said in a speech in Pennsylvania on Wednesday that the concern was that terrorists would get banned weapons from Saddam.

"There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks," Bush said.

"In the world after September the 11th, that wa s a risk we could not afford to take," he said, referring to the 2001 attacks on the United States attributed to al Qaeda.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS

Duelfer said a risk that has emerged since he last briefed the U.S. Congress on the status of the WMD hunt was a connection between chemical weapons experts from Saddam's former regime with insurgents fighting the U.S.-led forces now in Iraq.

"I believe we got ahead of this problem through a series of raids throughout the spring and summer. I am convinced we successfully contained a problem before it matured into a major threat," Duelfer said.

"Nevertheless, it points to the problem that the dangerous expertise developed by the previous regime could be transferred to other hands," he said.

Some chemical weapons that have been uncovered were all old and predated the first Gulf war, Duelfer said.

By the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq would have been able to produce mustard agent in months and nerve agent in less than a year, he said.

But Iraq was "years" from developing a nuclear weapon, said a U.S. official familiar with the Duelfer report.

White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in 2002 evoked a potential nuclear threat when she said: "We don't want 'the smoking gun' to be a mushroom cloud."

A key pre-war discovery that U.S. officials cited as evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program was a shipment of aluminium tubes seized in 2001.

But the U.S. official said the tubes appeared to have been for use in rockets as Iraq had declared, rather than for a nuclear weapons program.

"We found nothing which reflected production after 1991," the official said.

The WMD hunt uncovered labs controlled by Iraqi intelligence that showed production of small amounts of poisons, including ricin -- but for use in assassinations not military weapons.

The Duelfer report, which includes assessments based on FBI interrogations of Saddam, said the former Iraqi leader intended to rebuild his weapons capabilities once U.N. sanctions were lifted.