Fri, May 30, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Rumsfeld comment reignites debate on Iraqi arms program

AGENCIES , LONDON AND WASHINGTON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's post-war tour of Iraq yesterday ran into trouble before he had even set foot in the country when critics of the war seized on the "breathtaking" admission by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may have destroyed his weapons of mass destruction before the conflict started.

Speaking in New York on Tuesday, Rumsfeld said it was possible the reason Iraqi chemical or biological weapons had not yet been found was that Saddam's government "decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict."

Blair, who was adamant that Saddam's possession of such weapons justified going to war and that they could be used at 45 minutes' notice, told reporters Wednesday that he still believed the weapons existed.

"I have said throughout and I just repeat to you, I have absolutely no doubt at all about the existence of weapons of mass destruction," Blair said on a flight to Kuwait before he visited British troops in Basra yesterday.

Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary who quit as leader of the House of Commons in protest against the war, said Rumsfeld's comments vindicated his own stance.

"If Donald Rumsfeld is now admitting the weapons are not there, the truth is the weapons probably haven't been there for quite a long time," Cook told BBC radio.

The BBC reported yesterday that British intelligence agents were unhappy with the government's claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ready to use within 45 minutes.

The BBC quoted an unidentified official as saying the claim was not in early drafts of their dossier, but was added in the week before publication at the behest of Blair's office.

"It was included in the dossier against our wishes because it wasn't reliable. Most things in the dossier were double-sourced but that was single-sourced, and we believe that the source was wrong," the BBC quoted its source as saying.

Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram confirmed in an interview that there was a single source for the 45-minute claim. He denied, however, that Blair's office had insisted on including the claim in the dossier.

A day after Rumsfeld's speech, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz was quoted as saying that the US decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was taken for "bureaucratic" reasons to justify the war.

"For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on," Wolfowitz was quoted as saying in Vanity Fair magazine.

Wolfowitz said another reason for the invasion had been "almost unnoticed but huge" -- namely that the ousting of Saddam would allow the US to remove its troops from Saudi Arabia, where their presence had long been a major al-Qaeda grievance.

Meanwhile, a CIA report said on Wednesday that two mysterious trailers found in Iraq were mobile units to produce deadly germs and provided the strongest evidence yet that Saddam had a biological warfare program.

But they conceded that there were inconsistencies in the evidence and a lack of hard proof, like the presence of pathogens in trailer gear.

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