- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

President Bush yesterday said coalition forces in Iraq may never find weapons of mass destruction, raising the possibility that dictator Saddam Hussein destroyed or relocated his arsenal before he fled Baghdad.

But the president said he is nevertheless convinced Saddam had such weapons and hid them for a dozen years, stretching back to Iraq's 1991 surrender in the first Gulf war.

Saddam "tried to fool the United Nations, and did for 12 years by hiding these weapons. And so it's going to take time to find them," Mr. Bush said at the Lima Army Tank Plant in Ohio. "But we know he had them. And whether he destroyed them, moved them, or hid them, we're going to find out the truth."

Weapons of mass destruction are a subject of new controversy at the United Nations. France, Germany and Russia, which opposed a second Security Council resolution demanding Iraqi disarmament, insist that U.N. weapons inspectors handle the hunt for chemical or biological weapons, or a nuclear-weapons program. The United States asserts its right to conduct the search, citing the fact that U.S.-led coalition troops shed blood in Iraq.

During months of searching earlier this year, U.N. inspectors turned up nothing. But the White House insists that the United States may still find such weapons through help from Iraqis who worked in the programs.

"Just as we have always said for months, even before the war began, and even while the inspectors were there, the chances of success depend not on finding something by bumping into it during the courses of travel through Iraq, but it really depends on information that is provided to the United States, or to the coalition, or previously while the inspectors were there, from the Iraqi experts who were involved in the program," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

"Nothing has changed the president's confidence that this, indeed, will result in the findings," the spokesman said.

One senior administration official said an Iraqi scientist who has led coalition forces to materials used in the production of weapons of mass destruction has said some weapons were destroyed before the war. Some weapons also may have been destroyed or moved after the war began March 19, the official said.

Mr. Bush said some Iraqis with firsthand knowledge of Iraqi weapons programs include several top officials who have recently come into U.S. custody voluntarily or by capture.

"They are beginning to let us know what the facts were on the ground. And that's important because the regime of Saddam Hussein spent years hiding and disguising his weapons," Mr. Bush said.

There has been speculation in recent days that Iraq might have destroyed the weapons before the war or moved them to a neighboring country, such as Syria.

Whichever is true, Mr. Bush said, "One thing's for certain: Saddam Hussein no longer threatens America with weapons of mass destruction."

Coalition troops have searched more than 75 sites designated by U.S. intelligence as likely production or storage locations for weapons of mass destruction. So far, nothing has been found.

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