- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

The White House said yesterday that Saddam Hussein may have ordered the destruction of some chemical and biological weapons on the eve of the war and suggested that the swift military invasion could have prevented the Iraqi dictator from using what remained of his arsenal.

A day after President Bush said U.S. air strikes early in the war may have killed or severely wounded Saddam, preventing him from using mass destruction weapons or effectively commanding his troops, his spokesman yesterday said there is evidence some weapons may have been destroyed.

"The president says that we have evidence now that we are gathering that shows that they may have destroyed some of them on the eve of the war," Ari Fleischer said. "And just because it happened on the eve of the war, that proves what the president is saying about in the months leading up to the war, that the real cause of insecurity and the threat that Iraq presented was that they had weapons of mass destruction."

The spokesman would not divulge the evidence or reveal what intelligence led the president to assert that some weapons may have been destroyed.

"We can't explain why they may have destroyed some of them. Perhaps over time we will find out what drove them to do that. Perhaps it was the fear of actually being discovered, caught red-handed with the very weapons we said they had," Mr. Fleischer said.

Meanwhile, the White House announced that Mr. Bush will travel on Thursday to San Diego and greet U.S. Marines and sailors returning from the conflict aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier.

A senior administration official said the president may deliver a speech on board the carrier that includes "an element of closure" about the war in Iraq. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, cautioned that Mr. Bush must first hear the latest status of the war from allied commander Army Gen. Tommy Franks before deciding when to announce the end of the conflict.

The White House said coalition forces in Iraq have searched about 90 sites suspected of producing or holding mass destruction weapons but so far they have found nothing. "There are hundreds more to go," Mr. Fleischer said, "and as the president made clear again, as we continue to talk to the people who have come into our hands, we continue to gather more evidence, more information that we will act upon."

Mr. Bush on Thursday said there is "some evidence" that U.S. air strikes on the first night of the war in Iraq may have killed or severely wounded Saddam, which would explain why the dictator did not destroy oil wells and dams and why the Iraqi defense of Baghdad was so ineffective and disjointed.

"The people that wonder if Saddam Hussein is dead or not, there's some evidence that says, suggests he might be," Mr. Bush told NBC's Tom Brokaw. "We would never make that declaration until we were more certain. But the person that helped direct the attacks believes that Saddam, at the very minimum, was severely wounded."

The president said, "we know he had a weapons of mass destruction program," adding that because of the U.S.-led invasion, "we now know he's not going to use them."

Still, he said, "we will find them. But it's going to take time to find them."

Mr. Fleischer said the evidence that Saddam may have destroyed mass destruction weapons validates U.S. concerns about the threat posed by the regime.

"It actually proves the case, when you think about it, that if Iraq did, indeed, destroy some of them on the eve of war, they had them, they lied to the United Nations about them, they lied to the world about them, they lied to the United States about them, and they fooled the inspectors when it came to having them," Mr. Fleischer said.

"How could they have destroyed them if they didn't have them?"

The spokesman said one explanation for why Saddam and other regime officials didn't use mass destruction weapons or destroy Iraq's infrastructure "may be the successful military campaign that was carried out that prevented them from doing many of the worse-case scenarios that we feared they'd do."

"We're fortunate if they destroyed it, because that means they didn't use it. They certainly could have made a very different decision because they did have it. It could have been used," he said.

"Mercifully, it was not," Mr. Fleischer said.

In the president's wide-ranging interview with the NBC news anchor his first since the war began March 19 Mr. Bush said looting and vandalism in Baghdad, particularly in hospitals and museums, was "the absolute worst part" of an otherwise successful military campaign. "It's like uncorking a bottle of frustration," he said.

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