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Iraq Nuke Claim Was Echoed

The White House contends that President Bush's claim that Iraq tried to procure uranium from Africa was a 16-word gaffe resulting from botched discussions between the White House and the CIA.

But The Washington Post reports that the president's Jan. 28 State of the Union speech was only one of several occasions that same month where the administration made a similar claim — despite the fact that a similar allegation was removed from a presidential speech in October because the CIA felt the evidence behind it was shaky.

The Post reports the claim was repeated on at least six occasions around the time of the State of the Union speech.

In a report to Congress on Jan. 20 "relevant to the authorization for use of military force against Iraq" said Iraq had not reported to the United Nations its "attempts to acquire uranium and the means to enrich it."

A public report on Jan. 23 made reference to Iraq's "efforts to procure uranium from abroad for its nuclear weapons program."

Also on Jan. 23, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times that Iraq had failed "to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad."

The same day, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that Iraq's weapons declaration to the United Nations failed to included "no mention of Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from abroad."

Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 26, Secretary of State Colin Powell, asked, "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?"

And on Jan. 29, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, briefing reporters, said, "His regime has the design for a nuclear weapon; it was working on several different methods of enriching uranium, and recently was discovered seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The president's claim referred to an attempt to purchase material in Niger. The president based his claim on a British report published in September.

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said in his State of the Union.

The CIA tried to prevent the British from making the claim in that report.

Documents purporting to prove the deal were found to be forgeries days after the United States turned them over to international nuclear inspectors.

Britain claimed it had other evidence besides those documents and stands by its claim. The CIA also had evidence that Iraq had made bids to other African countries, but did not treat that information with high confidence.

The White House withdrew the uranium claim last month after a U.S. envoy, who had investigated the alleged Africa link, made it public that he had found no proof of the claim, and reported as much to the CIA in early 2002.

The Bush administration initially said the CIA had signed off on the speech, but ultimately a deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said he had mistakenly included it in the speech because he forgot about the CIA's complaints in October.

White House communications director Dan Bartlett said the use of the Africa claim in the State of the Union address "made people below feel comfortable using it as well."

He told The Post that there was "strategic coordination" and that "we talk broadly about what points to make," but he added: "I don't know of any specific talking points to say that this is supposed to be used."

The allegation that Saddam Hussein retained illegal chemical and biological weapons and was restarting his efforts to build a nuclear bomb was a key justification for the war in Iraq.

No weapons have been found.

Some U.S. analysts have claimed in published reports that they felt pressure to skew intelligence to fit the Bush administration's case. Declassified documents have indicated significant doubt and disagreement within the intelligence community over the threat posed by Iraq.

Committees in the House and Senate are reviewing the intelligence used to justify the war.

Administration officials, who had lately downplayed the importance of weapons a few weeks ago, have more recently expressed guarded optimism that evidence will surface pointing to weapons programs.

CIA adviser David Kay, who is serving as a special adviser for the weapons search, told lawmakers last Thursday that inspectors have found physical evidence of Iraqi activity on weapons of mass destruction.

Without offering any detail, he said investigators had made a "tactical and strategic decision" to focus on biological rather than on chemical or nuclear programs.