The CIA named a new inspector to lead the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction Friday, choosing a veteran investigator who has expressed recent skepticism that Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons that posed an immediate threat.
Charles Duelfer, the No. 2 United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq for much of the 1990s, is taking over the task of sorting out Saddam's weapons program. He said CIA Director George Tenet assured him he wanted one thing: ''That is the truth, wherever that lay.''
Former chief U.S. arms hunter David Kay has concluded Iraq had no stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, a potential embarrassment for President George W. Bush and ammunition to his election-year Democratic rivals.
Undercutting the White House's public rationale for the war on Iraq, Kay told Reuters by telephone shortly after stepping down from his post on Friday that he had concluded there were no such stockpiles to be found.
But a senior U.S. official said on Saturday that Vice President Dick Cheney, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, still believed 'the jury's still out' on whether Iraq had chemical or biological weapons or missiles, as contained in official U.S. intelligence estimates.
"I don't think they existed," Kay said. "What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last (1991) Gulf War, and I don't think there was a large-scale production program in the '90s," he said.
"I think we have found probably 85 percent of what we're going to find," said Kay, who returned from Iraq in December and told the CIA that he would not be going back.
"I think the best evidence is that they did not resume large-scale production and that's what we're really talking about," Kay said.
In his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, Bush again insisted that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had actively pursued dangerous weapons programs right up to the start of the U.S.-led invasion in March.
"Had we failed to act," Bush said, "the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."
The United Nations' top nuclear watchdog said on Saturday he was not surprised at Kay's conclusion. "I am not surprised about this," International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei told Reuters on the sidelines of the Davos meeting.
"We said already before the war, that there was no evidence of this, so this is really not a surprise."
Kay's statements were certain to reopen debate in the United States -- particularly among the field of Democratic candidates vying for the right to take on Bush in November -- about the administration's motives for launching the war.
REASONS FOR WAR
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who had ridden an anti-war current to the front of the Democratic pack before falling back in recent days, could get a boost from Kay's conclusions.
The remarks were certain to focus renewed attention on the war, which critics say was fought to secure control of Iraq's vast oil riches and relieve Arab pressure on U.S. ally Israel.
In London, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is a steadfast Bush ally in the war despite its unpopularity with many voters, Kay's admission of defeat on the weapons front marked a potential setback.
Blair's office issued a statement shrugging off his comments. "It is important people are patient and we let the Iraq Survey Group do its work," a spokesman said. "There is still more work to be done and we await the findings of that. But our position is unchanged."
On Friday, the White House stood firm. "We remain confident that the Iraq Survey Group will uncover the truth about Saddam Hussein's regime, the regime's weapons of destruction programs," spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The CIA announced that former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, who has expressed his own doubts that unconventional weapons would be found, would succeed Kay as Washington's chief arms hunter.
Duelfer, 51, a former deputy executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission that was responsible for dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, previously expressed doubts that unconventional weapons would be found.
But after his new job was announced, Duelfer said he was keeping an open mind and his past comments had been made from the sidelines without benefit of seeing the most current U.S. intelligence reports. "This was a spectator sport for me," he told reporters on a conference call.Posted by tstubbs at January 24, 2004 10:57 AM