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U.S. News
Bush hints Iraq has destroyed chemical, biological weapons

Friday, April 25, 2003

By Dana Milbank, The Washington Post

LIMA, Ohio -- President Bush raised the possibility yesterday that Saddam Hussein's government destroyed the prohibited chemical and biological weapons that were the justification for the United States invasion of Iraq.

President Bush admires a flat-top haircut as he greets members of the military during his arrival at Wright Patterson Air Force Base yesterday in Dayton, Ohio. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press)

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The president made the suggestion at a celebratory event at the plant that makes Abrams tanks, 900 of which have been used in the Iraq war. Addressing concerns about anarchy in Iraq and the absence of forbidden weapons, he urged patience on both counts while U.S. troops try to disarm and stabilize the country of 23 million.

"It's going to take time to find them," Bush said of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Speaking before hundreds of cheering workers, an enormous U.S. flag and five tanks with guns pointed skyward, he added: "But we know he had them. And whether he destroyed them, moved them, or hid them, we're going to find out the truth."

It was the first hint by Bush that U.S. troops and others hunting for weapons might fail to find chemical and biological arms.

The administration had laid out in painstaking detail what it called an irrefutable case that Iraq possessed such weapons. Failure to find significant quantities of the weapons would be a major embarrassment for the U.S. position.

Bush also said it would take time to rebuild the country. "Iraq is recovering not just from weeks of conflict, but from decades of totalitarian rule," he said. "Statues of the man have been pulled down, but the fear and suspicion he instilled in the people will take longer to pass away."

On the subject of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," administration officials have regularly expressed confidence that Saddam's weapons would be found, and many expected them to be found quickly. Bush's remarks yesterday were more pessimistic. He noted that Iraqis with knowledge of the programs "have come forward recently, some voluntarily, others not," to "let us know what the facts were on the ground."

While expressing no certainty about Iraq's weapons, Bush said that "one thing is for certain: Saddam Hussein no longer threatens America with weapons of mass destruction."

Launching the war, Bush told the nation that "the people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder." In the months before the war, the administration said that Iraq had not accounted for 25,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; and 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents.

The administration was also highly critical of U.N. weapons inspectors for failing to find the evidence. But in the war and its aftermath, U.S. troops and weapons hunters have failed to make a confirmed finding of forbidden weapons, even as they have uncovered tantalizing clues.

Bush's yesterday afternoon event in western Ohio became something of a celebration of the yet-undeclared victory in Iraq. He boasted that the "deck of cards," on which the Pentagon featured Iraq's most-wanted former leaders, "seems to be getting complete over time." Bush at one point stood on two of the tanks in the factory.

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