Republican lawmakers cite shells as WMD proof

Congressional Republicans are at odds with Democrats — and the Bush administration — over the significance of 500 munitions found in Iraq since 2003 and recently disclosed by the Pentagon.

The rocket and artillery shells hold deadly sarin and mustard gas, a small part of the vast weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal that Saddam Hussein built in the 1980s.

Republican lawmakers say the 500-plus shells, with more likely to be found in the coming months, are evidence that Saddam was still concealing WMDs in 2003 in violation of United Nations resolutions to disarm after Iraq’s failed invasion of Kuwait.

The resolution “didn’t say pre-‘91 chemical weapons,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican. “It didn’t say post-‘91 chemical weapons. It said chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein violated this resolution and others like it. … In part because of such violations, we voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq.”

Democrats dismiss the findings. They say the munitions were found in small clusters and are 1980s vintage. In other words, Iraq produced them before the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and thus they are irrelevant to the CIA’s flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), on which President Bush largely based his decision to go to war to keep Iraq’s WMDs from terrorists, they say.

To the consternation of congressional Republicans, including Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, the Democrats are getting support from the administration.

When the office of Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte conducted a phone-in briefing for reporters last month, the presenters downplayed the munitions finding, just like the Democrats.

“The priority of the ISG [Iraq Survey Group, which headed the hunt for WMDs] was to look for post-Desert Storm [1991] munitions, newer stuff,” an anonymous briefer told reporters. “It was not looking for older stuff. And so this doesn’t really bear on the issue.”

That dismissive remark generally dovetailed with press reporting. But it irked Mr. Hoekstra, who had held a press conference to announce that the administration had declassified a report on the 500 shells. Mr. Hoekstra wrote an unusually blunt June 29 letter to Mr. Negroponte, accusing his staff of misstating the ISG’s mission statement. The ISG was not limited to poking around for post-1991 weapons, he said. He also accused Mr. Negroponte of ignoring requests for information from a Republican senator.

“I am very disappointed by the inaccurate, incomplete, and occasionally misleading comments made by the briefers,” he wrote.

Negroponte spokesman Carl Kropf said of the letter, “We’ll respond in some fashion to be determined.”

Republicans say that with the passage of time, as new information surfaces, the CIA’s much-maligned NIE does not look quite as bad. To be sure, inspectors have not found the tons of chemical weapons stockpiles it had predicted, or an active nuclear weapons program, or continued manufacturing of WMDs.

But the NIE contained other components. For example, it said hundreds of chemical weapons munitions remained unaccounted for, after U.N. inspectors destroyed thousands. The NIE did not specify the shells had to be post-1991, so the discovery of more than 500 munitions since 2004 would tend to validate that finding.

What’s more, the ISG did find that Saddam planned to resume WMD production quickly once U.N. sanctions were lifted. He had already corrupted the U.N.’s oil-for-food transactions by bribing foreign government officials and suppliers of prohibited weapons.

That ISG finding has been buttressed by newly declassified transcripts of taped conversations between Saddam and his top aides. The palace talk: WMD production would be resumed once the West lost interest in containing Baghdad.

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