Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said yesterday that, before the war in Iraq, the international community had no evidence that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons program.

“There was a presumption that there was a nuclear program going on,” Mrs. Palacio told The Washington Times.

“There were no evidences, no proof, but yes a pervasive idea that they were, that Saddam Hussein was in a way or other involved in a nuclear program,” she said.

The minister said that a report by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the United Nations on March 7 clarified Iraq’s nuclear capabilities.

In that report, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei concluded that documents that formed the basis for reports of uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger were not authentic and there was no indication of resumed nuclear activities in buildings monitored by satellite imagery.

Mrs. Palacio’s comments came amid an international political storm about whether the U.S. and British governments mishandled intelligence concerning Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs that in turn, could have influenced other governments to support the conflict.

“I expect this issue will become less of an issue in the coming weeks,” said Mrs. Palacio, pointing out that recent increased cooperation with Iraqis likely would lead to information regarding weapons of mass destruction.

“We can never forget that what led us to the military intervention was that Saddam Hussein did not comply with international obligations” to explain or produce evidence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological or nuclear.

The minister was in Washington after a whirlwind tour of Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, Syria, followed by a one-day stop in New York Tuesday. There, she chaired the United Nations Security Council meeting at which the U.S.-chosen Iraqi Governing Council outlined its plans for the country.

She was to meet with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House adviser Karl Rove, and the U.S. administrator for Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer.

“I expect that we are starting a different chapter in Iraq,” she said. “After the nomination of the Governing Council [and] after the death of Saddam Hussein’s two sons, I think that we will see things go in a different way.”

Spain, which has steadfastly backed President Bush despite strong public disapproval at home of the war in Iraq, will be deploying 1,300 troops to southwestern Iraq in September.

The United States has been seeking to expand the international component of the roughly 160,000 troops currently in Iraq.

Mrs. Palacio, whose country just took over the Security Council’s rotating presidency, said she was open to discussions for an additional U.N. mandate to persuade more countries — such as India, France and Russia — to join the coalition.

But, she warned: “What would be very negative for all of us is just to launch a big debate on a new resolution.”

Mrs. Palacio, who hosted talks in April among Russia, EU, U.N. and U.S. officials on the Mideast “road map” for peace, also called on the United States to shore up the fragile peace plan.

“It’s beginning to produce results, [but] it’s very little and we have to back the road map and help it bloom because it is in a very delicate condition,” she said. “U.S. commitment is the cornerstone.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet with Mr. Bush tomorrow, four days before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives in Washington.

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