Secretary of State Colin Powell held out the possibility Saturday that prewar Iraq might not have possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Powell was asked about comments last week by David Kay, the outgoing leader of a U.S. weapons search team in Iraq, that he did not believe Iraq had large quantities of chemical or biological weapons.
"The answer to that question is: we don't know yet," Powell said.
Powell acknowledged the United States thought Saddam Hussein had banned weapons, but added, "We had questions that needed to be answered.
"What was it?" he asked. "One hundred tons, 500 tons or zero tons? Was it so many liters of anthrax, 10 times that amount or nothing?"
The Sunday Telegraph in London reported that Kay said elements of Hussein's weapons program were sent to Syria.
"We are not talking about a large stockpile of weapons, but we know from some of the interrogations of former Iraqi officials that a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) program," the paper quoted Kay as saying. "Precisely what went to Syria, and what has happened to it, is a major issue that needs to be resolved."
Kay said in October that "senior Iraqi officials, both military and scientific," had moved to Jordan and Syria, "both preconflict and some during the conflict, and some immediately after the conflict." Other U.S. officials, including the head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, also have suggested Iraqis moved evidence of weapons of mass destruction to Syria and perhaps other countries.
Almost a year has passed since Powell's speech before the U.N. Security Council in which he accused Iraq of violating a U.N. weapons ban imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Since then, the administration has been less categorical, contending Hussein was actively pursuing banned weapons. The administration generally has avoided the issue of possession despite having spent at least $900-million in the weapons search.
President Bush, in his State of the Union address last week, cited an interim report by Kay in October in which the inspector claimed to have found dozens of weapons-related programs and equipment in Iraq.
"Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day," the president said.
On Saturday, Bush's spokesman said the administration stood by its assertions that Iraq had banned weapons at the time of the U.S.-led war. Scott McClellan said it was only a matter of time before inspectors uncover their location.
"The Iraq Survey Group's work is ongoing, and it is important that they complete their work," McClellan said. "The truth will come out, but we already know that Saddam Hussein's regime was given one final opportunity to comply or face serious consequences, and he chose to continue to be in clear violation of his international obligations."
In an interview published Sunday, but conducted before the announcement that Kay was stepping down, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he believed the intelligence received by his government before the war was correct.
"It is absurd to say in respect of any intelligence that it is infallible, but if you ask me what I believe, I believe the intelligence was correct, and I think in the end we will have an explanation," he was quoted as saying in the Observer.
No wavering last February
In acknowledging Saturday that Saddam Hussein might not have had the massive weapons stockpiles the Bush administration claimed before the war with Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "We had questions that needed to be answered." He was much more unequivocal in his address to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003:
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"What you will see is an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior. The facts and Iraqis' behavior, Iraq's behavior, demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort, no effort, to disarm, as required by the international community.
"Indeed, the facts and Iraq's behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction . . ."
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"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions.
"What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."
"Let me take you inside that intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. . . . We know that Iraq has at least seven of these mobile, biological agent factories. . . .
"There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more _ many more. And he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction."
"Under the guise of dual-use infrastructure, Iraq has undertaken an effort to reconstitute facilities that were closely associated with its past program to develop and produce chemical weapons. . . . Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. . . .
"Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein has used such weapons. And Saddam Hussein has no compunction about using them again _ against his neighbors and against his own people.
"And we have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use them. He wouldn't be passing out the orders if he didn't have the weapons or the intent to use them."
_ The complete text of Powell's address can be seen at http://usinfo.state.gov/