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Asked about arms, Bush defends war

President Bush declined Tuesday to repeat his claims that evidence that Saddam Hussein had illicit weapons would eventually be found in Iraq. He insisted, however, that the war was nonetheless justified because Hussein had posed "a grave and gathering threat to America and the world."

Asked by reporters if he would repeat his earlier expressions of confidence that the weapons would be found in light of recent statements by the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, that Hussein had gotten rid of them well before the war, Bush did not answer directly.

Bush said, "I think it's very important for us to let the Iraq Survey Group do its work, so we can find out the facts and compare the facts to what was thought."

SOME ARMS WERE DESTROYED: U.S. weapons inspectors in Iraq found new evidence that Hussein's regime destroyed some stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons in the mid 1990s without informing the United Nations, Kay told the Washington Post on Tuesday.

The discovery means that inspectors have not only failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but have found information _ contemporaneous documents and confirmations from interviews with Iraqis _ demonstrating that Hussein did make efforts to disarm well before Bush began making the case for war.

The fact that Iraq disarmed at least partly before 1998 but did not turn over records to United Nations inspectors even when threatened with war led Kay to conclude that Hussein was bluffing about his weapons capability to maintain an aura of power.

In response to the Kay revelations, both White House officials and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said they had never claimed that Hussein represented an "imminent" threat.

"I think some in the media have chosen to use the word "imminent,' " said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "Those were not words we used. We used "grave and gathering threat.' "

Bush said in a major speech in October 2002 that waiting to confront Hussein was "the riskiest of all options." The United States, he said, "must not ignore the threat gathering against us."

"Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof _ the smoking gun _ that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Kay will testify this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

DISCLOSURES CALLED HEALTHY: The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that Kay is doing the nation's intelligence system a favor with his harsh criticism of the CIA's flawed prewar estimates on Iraq's weapons capabilities.

"If you really want to get into our national security, Dr. Kay has done some valuable work that has told me, as person with responsibility, that I have got to find a way to get more capabilities in the hands of the intelligence community to deal with these hard targets," Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Goss, a former CIA and Army intelligence officer, said he agrees with Kay that Bush made the right decision to invade Iraq and depose Hussein. But, Goss said, the intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq was inadequate because intelligence agencies had failed to penetrate Hussein's inner circle.

Turkish chief has warning on Kurds

WASHINGTON _ A day before he meets with President Bush, Turkey's prime minister said Tuesday that Iraq could be destroyed if Kurds are given autonomy there.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is expected to seek assurances at the White House meeting that the United States opposes Kurdish self-rule, which Turkey fears could cause Iraq to break up along ethnic lines, endangering Turkey and other neighbors.

"The territorial integrity of Iraq has to be sustained," Erdogan said, answering questions after giving a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He spoke through an interpreter.

U.S.-Turkey relations have been tense since the Turkish Parliament refused to allow in U.S. troops for the Iraq war.

Turkey fears that Kurdish control of oil-rich northern Iraq could lead to an independent state, possibly triggering uprisings in Kurdish regions of Turkey and other neighboring countries. Turkey fought Kurdish rebels for 15 years until 1999.

The Bush administration has stressed the need to keep Iraq intact. But it also has said that any decision on the Kurdish territory will have to be made by Iraqis after they regain control of the country. The U.S. occupation of Iraq is scheduled to end July 1.

KURDS WARN TURKEY: The Kurdish government in northern Iraq's Irbil province threatened to close down the office of a Turkish-led peacekeeping force if Ankara did not withdraw. Turkey sent the force during the last decade to patrol a line separating rival Kurdish groups.