- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

Senior Republican senators returning from Iraq yesterday said U.S. officials there showed them proof of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, and the lawmakers expect the information to be made public soon.

“In my judgment, any fair-minded, objective individual upon learning of that information, which I’m sure in the future will be divulged, will clearly come to the conclusion that these weapons did exist, that they were in the hands of those who could use them and, thank God, they weren’t used,” said Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican.

However, Mr. Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the information was “of the highest classification, which we cannot divulge.”

He and seven other senators — a bipartisan group of members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Select Committee on Intelligence — briefed reporters at the Capitol after returning from a three-day, fact-finding mission to Iraq.

The senators visited with U.S. military forces, Iraqi civilians, and U.S. and Iraqi officials involved in trying to rebuild the country’s political system and infrastructure. They paid visits to the Kurdish north, Sunni center and Shi’ite south.

Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the intelligence committee, said he is optimistic that U.S. forces will find Saddam’s banned programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

“We are finding volumes of documentation, and it takes us time to go through it. That has led us to a couple of what I would call breakthrough pieces of information that I hope in the near future will be very positive news,” Mr. Roberts said.

“Now the focus is on people information and document exploitation. That will lead to the final puzzle to prove without a doubt he had the WMD,” he said.

After the briefing, Mr. Roberts told reporters, “I’d be a little careful were I overly critical of the lack of finding any WMD — you may end up with WMD and some egg on your face.”

President Bush declared victory in Iraq two months ago. Since then, specialists have been combing the country for evidence of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and trying to determine what happened to the programs known to exist from the early 1990s.

But as confident as the two Republicans were of finding evidence, some of the Democrats said they didn’t reach the same conclusion.

“There is troubling evidence of exaggeration and stretching on the part of the intelligence community relative to the presence in Iraq, right before the war, of weapons of mass destruction,” said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.

“That was the immediate reason that was given,” Mr. Levin said. “And the accuracy and objectivity of that intelligence is under review in a number of places, as it should be.”

He said the question of whether Saddam had a weapons program — the new focus for the investigative team — is different from the question of whether Iraq had weapons at its disposal.

But Sen. Mark Dayton, Minnesota Democrat, was skeptical about the worth of the search for Saddam’s weapons.

“I think this hunt for the weapons of mass destruction, like the hunt for Red October, is a huge red herring that’s distracting resources and personnel in Iraq for what should be under way, which is to win this engagement,” he said.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said one key to determining the fate of the programs is to capture Saddam or to prove to the Iraqi people he is dead. That would allow those with information about the programs to come forward without fear of retribution.

“There is a shadow over that country — far more so than I thought when I went there — of the lack of the proven death of Saddam Hussein and his two sons,” Mr. Rockefeller said.

Senators from both parties said lifting that uncertainty surrounding Saddam’s fate will aid the search for weapons, as well as help the coalition rebuild the country and quell resistance.

“There’s a pervasive climate of fear that is impeding the recovery, particularly in central and southern Iraq,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican. “There is a fear that he will return, that he will come back. And that fear prevents us from making progress as rapidly as we otherwise would, and that fear emboldens those who would attack our troops.”

Senators said they do not believe the attacks, which have killed 25 U.S. soldiers since Mr. Bush’s declared end of major combat, are part of a coordinated effort.

“I don’t think in the judgment of the intelligence community and the military that this is a really fine-tuned organization by any means,” Mr. Roberts said. “It’s very loose-knit. But the word is, it could come to that if, in fact, we don’t make progress in the next 100 days to six months.”

Mr. Rockefeller described chilling leaflets explaining how to kill a U.S. soldier by pointing out the most vulnerable areas.

The senators said they were impressed by how well the military was handling what promised to be a difficult job for a long time to come.

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said that even in the mostly Kurdish northern part of Iraq, which is considered the most stable, more than 2,300 individual ammunition supply points remain to be secured.

“It just gives you an indication of the proliferation of small arms and conventional weapons throughout Iraq,” he said.

Still, several senators said they also detected a rising national sentiment of unity.

Miss Collins said the fear that Iraq would split into three nations after the war proved unfounded.

Mr. Roberts noted a symphony concert last week that closed with the old Iraqi national anthem, “My Nation,” which Saddam didn’t like and was played rarely in his 35-year rule.

“All of the Iraqis, which was a packed house, stood up, cheered, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The key issue is resolve: We can do this thing, we can do it well, and I think we are doing it well,” Mr. Roberts said.

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