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Saturday, August 2, 2003

Aide: Saddam purposely misled on arms
Leader sought to keep up guessing game to prevent an invasion, official says.


The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, IRAQ A close aide to Saddam Hussein says the Iraqi dictator got rid of his weapons of mass destruction but deliberately kept the world guessing about the truth in an effort to divide the international community and stave off a U.S. invasion.

The strategy, which turned out to be a serious miscalculation, was designed to make Saddam look strong in the eyes of the Arab world while countries such as France and Russia were wary of joining the American-led attack. At the same time, the aide said, Saddam retained the technical know-how and brain power to restart the programs at any time.

Pentagon officials and weapons experts alike are considering this guessing- game theory as the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons continues. If true, it would indicate there was no imminent threat of the use of unconventional weapons by Iraq, a key argument President George W. Bush used to go to war.

Saddam's alleged bluff was detailed by an Iraqi official who assisted the leader for many years. The official was not part of the national regime, but his job provided him daily contact with the dictator and insight into the regime's decision-making process during the past decade and in its critical final days.

According to the aide, by the mid-1990s "it was common knowledge among the leadership" that Iraq had destroyed its chemical stocks and discontinued development of biological and nuclear weapons.

But Saddam remained convinced that an ambiguous stance about the status of Iraq's weapons programs would deter a U.S. attack.

"He repeatedly told me: 'These foreigners, they only respect strength, they must be made to believe we are strong,' " the aide said.

Publicly Saddam denied having unconventional weapons. But from 1998 until 2002, he prevented U.N. inspectors from working in the country and when they finally returned in November 2002, they often complained that Iraq wasn't fully cooperating.

Iraqi scientists have maintained that no new unconventional-weapons programs were started in recent years and that all the materials from previous programs were destroyed.

Both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have come under fire in recent weeks as weapons hunters come up empty and prewar intelligence is questioned.

The White House acknowledged recently that it included discredited information in Bush's State of the Union speech about alleged Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium - a key ingredient for nuclear weapons. More importantly, no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have been found.

Before the invasion, the British government said Saddam could deploy unconventional weapons within 45 minutes. The Bush administration insisted that the threat was so immediate that the world couldn't afford to wait for U.N. inspectors to wind up their searches. Despite the warnings, Iraqi troops never used such weapons during the war.

Intelligence officials at the Pentagon, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some experts had raised the theory that Iraq put out false information to persuade its enemies that it retained prohibited chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

"That explanation has plausibility," said Robert Einhorn an ex-assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. "But the disposition of those missing weapons and materials still has to be explained somehow."

Iraq's assertions that it destroyed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons materials could never be verified by U.N. inspectors, who repeatedly requested proof.

However, U.N. inspectors, who scoured Iraq for nearly four months before the war, never found any evidence of renewed weapons programs.

"The longer that one does not find any weapons in spite of people coming forward and being rewarded for giving information, etc., the more I think it is important that we begin to ask ourselves if there were no weapons, why was it that Iraq conducted itself as it did for so many years?" Hans Blix, ex-chief U.N. weapons inspector, said in June.

Saddam's aide suggested that the game the dictator was playing backfired because U.S. policy switched in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, from containing the Iraqi leader to going after those who could supply terrorists with deadly weapons.

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