Bush insists weapons report justifies war against Iraq

Critics say empty search proves Baghdad no threat

October 04, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Brushing aside the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush defended yesterday his decision to go to war and said this week's interim report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector proves "Saddam Hussein was a danger to the world."

One day after the top weapons hunter said his inspectors had found no illicit weapons in their search so far, the White House mounted a damage-control effort. The president and other officials chose to highlight what they called evidence found by the inspection team of Iraq's deception and its intent to develop unconventional weapons.

Several key congressional Democrats seized on the team's failure to find any such weapons to argue that the administration had misled Americans into thinking that Hussein's regime represented an imminent danger that justified war.

The administration's renewed drive to portray Hussein as having posed a grave threat coincided with a poll showing a further slide in Bush's approval ratings, including in the area that until recently had been his chief source of political strength: national security.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released yesterday found that fewer than half those questioned - 45 percent, down from 66 percent in April - have confidence in the president's ability to handle an international crisis.

Forty-seven percent approved of his handling of Iraq, down from 58 percent in July.

The poll reflected growing public unease over the bloody and uncertain aftermath of the Iraq war and the rising cost of the U.S. occupation.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell stepped up their defense of the U.S.-led war in Iraq one day after David Kay, the top U.S. weapons inspector, acknowledged in his preliminary report, "We have not yet found stocks of weapons" after a three-month search by his 1,200-member team.

The president's insistence that Hussein's regime possessed chemical and biological weapons - and was trying to revive its nuclear weapons program - was his primary justification for attacking Iraq.

Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, the president stressed what he called Kay's disturbing revelations about Iraq.

"The report," Bush said, "states that Saddam Hussein's regime had a clandestine network of biological laboratories, a live strain of deadly agent botulinum, sophisticated concealment efforts and advanced design work on prohibited longer-range missiles."

The president pointed out that Kay said his inspection team needs six to nine more months to finish its work.

Already, Bush asserted, the interim findings make clear that Iraq had defied the United Nations' requirement that it divulge its weapons programs, "and that Saddam Hussein was a danger to the world."

Buttressing Bush's comments, Kay told reporters that had the extent of Iraq's concealment been known last winter, when U.N. weapons inspectors were still at work there, there would have been an international "uproar."

But Kay also said that the botulinum strain had been stored by a scientist since 1993.

Rising doubts

Bush's determination to go to war without giving U.N. inspectors more time to look for unconventional weapons in Iraq drew angry resistance from several U.S. allies.

In the end, the United States and Britain launched the invasion without explicit U.N. Security Council approval.

Asked yesterday about Americans' rising doubts that the war was worth the cost, the president replied: "I don't make decisions based on polls. I make decisions based upon what I think is important for the security of the American people."

As he has before, Bush linked his decision to invade to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, though the president has previously acknowledged that he has seen no evidence that Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I'm not going to forget the lessons of 9/11, September 2001," the president said. "This administration will deal with gathering dangers where we find them."

Cheney, speaking in Malvern, Pa., scoffed at "this whole debate over, well, maybe Saddam didn't really have WMD, maybe he was just bluffing," and he criticized news reports about Kay's findings: "Frankly, I can turn on the television sometimes at night, and I have the report in front of me, and I don't recognize the way it's described by our friends in the press."

Established program

The vice president read two paragraphs from the report, including one also noted by Bush, that began, "Iraq's WMD programs spanned more than two decades, involved thousands of people, billions of dollars, and was elaborately shielded by security and deception operations that continued even beyond the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Then he mentioned Kay's discovery of a prison lab complex, possibly used in human testing; biological organisms found in an Iraqi scientist's home; and buried documents and equipment that could have been used to revive Iraq's nuclear program.

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