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White House softens its talk of illicit arms

The White House on Monday began to back away from its unequivocal assertions that Iraq had illegal weapons, saying it now wants to compare prewar intelligence assessments with what is actually found in Iraq.

The subtle rhetorical change followed sharp public words from the CIA's former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, comments that have suddenly intensified the debate in Washington over who is to blame for the shaping of prewar intelligence that President Bush used to justify toppling Saddam Hussein.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the administration would wait for the weapons hunting team, the Iraq Survey Group, to complete its work before drawing any conclusions about the quality of the intelligence available to the United States before the war.

But he said that whatever the group's final conclusions about Iraq's weapons programs, Bush had done the correct thing in deposing Hussein because Iraq was clearly working on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders used Kay's statements to argue for a more aggressive investigation by the Republican-controlled Congress into the shaping of prewar intelligence. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota complained that the Republican leader of the Senate intelligence committee was seeking to limit the scope of that panel's inquiry, even as Kay was now revealing the extent of the problem.

Hearing held in prisoner's death

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. _ Three Marine reservists appeared in military court Monday to face charges stemming from the death of an Iraqi prisoner who prosecutors said was punched, karate-kicked and dragged by the throat while in their custody.

The military prosecutor, Capt. Leon Francis, said Nagen Sadoon Hatab, a high-ranking member of the Baath Party, was among three prisoners "of notoriety" brought to a detention facility in southern Iraq last June. Hatab, 52, had been left lying naked, covered in his own feces, for hours when he was found dead.

Francis said Hatab was singled out for punishment because he was captured with a rifle belonging to the 507th Maintenance Company, which had been ambushed in Nasiriyah in March. Eleven soldiers were killed, nine wounded and six captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

The reservists were in court Monday for an Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, which will help determine whether they will be court-martialed.

Lance Cpl. Christian Hernandez and his superior officer, Maj. Clark A. Paulus, face the most serious charge _ negligent homicide _ as well as charges of cruelty, assault and dereliction of duty. Sgt. Gary Pittman is accused of dereliction of duty and assault.

A fourth Marine, Lance Cpl. William Roy, who was supposed to appear in court, struck a deal with the military and will testify against his former comrades under a grant of immunity.

ELVIS AT THE HOLE: Army Sgt. Maj. Cesar Castro of Dallas holds a cutout of Elvis Presley on Monday at the hole in Dwar, Iraq, from which troops captured Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13. Troops searching for the ousted dictator called him "Elvis" and called their missions "Elvis hunts."