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2003-05-15 - 6:08 p.m.

Bush Officials Change Tune on Iraqi Weapons

Filed at 12:53 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration has changed its tune on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the reason it went to war there. Instead of looking for vast stocks of banned materials, it is now pinning its hopes on finding documentary evidence.

The change in rhetoric, apparently designed in part to dampen public expectations, has unfolded gradually in the past month as special U.S. military teams have found little to justify the administration's claim that Iraq was concealing vast stocks of chemical and biological agents and was actively working on a covert nuclear weapons program.

``The administration seems to be hoping that inconvenient facts will disappear from the public discourse. It's happening to a large degree,'' said Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think-tank which opposed the war.

Few politicians have raised the issue, not wishing to question a popular military victory. However, California Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said last week she was concerned.

``Though I was convinced of the case made prior to the war, I am increasingly concerned about the lack of progress in uncovering the Iraqi weapons. We need a thorough accounting of what intelligence was available to Congress and war planners before and during the conflict,'' she said.

In a New York Times/CBS poll released on Tuesday, 49 percent said the administration overestimated the amount of banned weapons in Iraq, while 29 percent said its estimates were accurate and 12 percent said they were low.

Still, 56 percent said the war would still have been worthwhile even if weapons of mass destruction were never found, while 38 percent said it would not have been worth it.

President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told Reuters on Monday that Washington was sending a new team to Iraq to scour for evidence.

The new team will be ``more expert'' at following the paper trail and other intelligence. She said Iraq appeared to have had a virtually ``inspections proof'' system of concealing chemical and biological weapons by developing chemicals and agents that could be used for more than one purpose, but that could be put together as weapons at the last minute.

She said U.S. officials never expected that ``we were going to open garages and find'' weapons of mass destruction.


That statement represents a dramatic change from rhetoric from Bush and other top officials before the war, backed up by a steady stream of documents, all of which are still accessible on the White House web site.

In his March 17 speech giving Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave the country, Bush said: ``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.''

Earlier, in a speech last Oct. 7, Bush said: ``The Iraqi regime ... possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.

``We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas ... And surveillance photos reveal that the regime is rebuilding facilities that it had used to produce chemical and biological weapons.''

In his State of the Union address last January, Bush accused Iraq of having enough material ``to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax -- enough doses to kill several million people ... more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin -- enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure ... as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.''

In his presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 6, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington ``knew'' that Baghdad had dispersed rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agents to locations in western Iraq.

``We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities,'' Powell said. ``There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.''

In Congressional testimony in April, Powell said weapons ``will be found.'' He said of his U.N speech, ``everything we had there had backup and double sourcing and triple sourcing.''

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