Thursday, February 19, 2004

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi leader accused of feeding faulty prewar intelligence to Washington said his information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons — even if discredited — achieved the aim of persuading the United States to topple the dictator.

Ahmed Chalabi and his London-based exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, for years provided a conduit for Iraqi defectors who were debriefed by U.S. intelligence agents.

But many American officials now blame Mr. Chalabi for providing what turned out to be false or wildly exaggerated intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

During an interview, Mr. Chalabi, by far the most effective anti-Saddam lobbyist in Washington, shrugged off charges that he had deliberately misled U.S. intelligence.

“We are heroes in error,” he said in Baghdad on Wednesday. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful.

“Our objective has been achieved. That tyrant Saddam is gone, and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important.”

Mr. Chalabi added: “The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re ready to fall on our swords if [President Bush] wants.”

His comments are likely to inflame the debate on both sides of the Atlantic over the quality of prewar intelligence, and over the way it was presented by Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as they argued for military action.

U.S. officials said last week that one of the most celebrated pieces of false intelligence, the claim that Saddam had mobile biological-weapons laboratories, had come from a major in the Iraqi intelligence service made available by the INC.

U.S. officials at first found the information credible, and the defector passed a lie-detector test. But in later interviews it became apparent that he was stretching the truth and had been “coached by the INC.”

He failed a second polygraph test, and intelligence agencies were warned that the information was unreliable in May 2002.

But analysts missed the warning, and the mobile-lab story remained firmly established in the catalog of purported Iraqi violations until months after the overthrow of Saddam.

The United States at one point claimed to have found two mobile labs, but the trucks were later reported to have held equipment to make hydrogen for weather balloons.

Last week, State Department officials conceded that much of the firsthand testimony they had received was “shaky.”

“What the INC told us formed one part of the intelligence picture,” said a senior official in Baghdad. “But what Chalabi told us, we accepted in good faith. Now there are going to be a lot of question marks over his motives.”

Mr. Chalabi remains an influential member of the Iraqi Governing Council, though he has failed to develop the popular following in Iraq that his most enthusiastic sponsors once expected.

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