[Even] Cheney backs away from Iraq WMD claim

Financial Times

By Stefan Wagstyl in Rome and Guy Dinmore in Washington

Published: January 27 2004 20:08 | Last Updated: January 27 2004 20:08

Dick Cheney, US vice-president, on Tuesday defended the US decision to invade Iraq but, in a notable shift of emphasis, he left open the question of whether Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction - a claim he made repeatedly before the war. In his first public response to David Kay, who resigned last Friday as the chief US arms inspector saying pre-war intelligence was wrong, Mr Cheney said: "There's still work to be done to ascertain exactly what's there, and I am not prepared to make a final judgment until they have completed their work."

The vice-president had been one of the administration's most vocal champions of the view that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. Shortly before the war he also claimed it had "reconstituted" nuclear arms.

As voting began in the New Hampshire primary to choose the Democratic candidate for November's presidential election, Mr Cheney also rejected an assertion by John Kerry, front-runner in the polls, that the administration had broken promises over the war. "We used force only because all other options had failed," he said in an interview in Rome with European newspapers, including the Financial Times.

During the interview, Mr Cheney highlighted comments by Mr Kay which supported the case that the former Iraqi leader had sought to develop prohibited weapons long after big stockpiles were destroyed in the early 1990s.

He quoted Mr Kay as saying Iraq had continued "until the end" to develop biological weapons, such as ricin, had maintained a missile programme and had restarted its nuclear programme in 2000-1.

Meanwhile, in Washington President George W. Bush repeated his assertion that Mr Hussein had been "a grave and gathering threat to America and the world". Speaking to reporters during a meeting with Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Polish president, Mr Bush complimented Mr Kay but implicitly went against his findings by defending the US intelligence services.

"Well, first of all, I have got great confidence in our intelligence community," Mr Bush said while not directly addressing the question of whether Iraq actually had prohibited weapons.

On Tuesday, Mr Kay went further in seeking to justify the US case for war despite his belief that Mr Hussein's programmes had failed, in part because his scientists had cheated him. "I think, at the end of the inspection process, we'll paint a picture of Iraq that was far more dangerous than even we thought it was before the war," he told NBC.

Mr Cheney repeated the conciliatory message he has delivered during his trip to Europe, seeking international co-operation in Iraqi reconstruction and war on terror. But he never wavered from his insistence that the US had been right to fight the war.