U.S., Brits Split On WMD Claims

The United States and Britain stood shoulder to shoulder in the war on Iraq but not on key allegations about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction capabilities, a newspaper reports.

Based on recently released British documents and interviews with U.S. officials, The Washington Post says British and American intelligence analysts did not see eye-to-eye on whether Saddam had sought uranium in Africa or what was the real purpose of imported aluminum tubes. They also did not agree on how quickly Iraq could deploy illegal weapons.

However, on two occasions, U.S. officials — including President Bush — echoed British allegations doubted by the CIA.

And on two crucial issues where the intelligence agencies did agree — when Iraq might deploy weapons of mass destruction and whether Saddam would give weapons to terrorists — British and U.S. officials adopted a contrary view.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has fueled criticism of both Mr. Bush and Blair. A poll released Sunday found 64 percent of Britons questioned last week said they did not trust Blair and 48 percent think he should resign. The survey by ICM for the News of the World newspaper had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Two British parliamentary committees have probed the prewar claims, and exonerated Blair's aides of deliberately exaggerating intelligence. Documents released in the course of those proceedings point to the U.S.-British differences.

In the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA said most intelligence agencies believed "Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors" were evidence of a renewed quest for nuclear arms. The tubes were likely intended for enriching uranium, the CIA said.

The Departments of Energy and State dissented from this view. But it became a key part of the administration's case.

In his State of the Union in January, Mr. Bush said, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

On Feb. 5, in his speech to the Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "all the experts who have analyzed the tubes in our possession agree that they can be adapted for centrifuge use."

But British experts disagreed. When Blair aide Alastair Campbell suggested that a government dossier on Iraqi weapons mention the number of tubes in Iraq's possession, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, refused.

Scarlett told Campbell he had "toned down the reference to aluminum tubes…[reflecting] some very recent exchanges on intelligence channels…there is no definitive intelligence that it is destined for a nuclear programme," according to documents obtained by The Post.

For its part, the CIA disagreed with the British claim that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

According to a senior administration official who spoke to The Post, while the CIA considered the 45-minute allegation "interesting and plausible," the agency never adopted it because it had "no separate reporting."

A congressional aide said Congress was told U.S. agencies had "had no confidence in the Iraqi officer" who was the source of the British claim. However, Mr. Bush repeated that claim on two occasions, without checking with the CIA.

British intelligence also claimed that Iraq had tried to procure uranium from Africa.

Doubting its merit, the CIA tried to get the British to omit this claim, and had references to it deleted from speeches by Mr. Bush and another official. The U.S. agency had sent former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to check out the allegation in February 2002; Wilson had reported no evidence of any attempt by Iraq.

But Mr. Bush referred to the British allegation in his State of the Union, only to retract it this summer after documents purported as evidence of the uranium deal were deemed forgeries.

However, there were multiple points of agreement between the two country's intelligence agencies. Both believed Iraq was continuing to produce chemical and biological weapons and had ambitions to obtain nuclear arms.

In addition, according to The Post, both British and U.S. intelligence agencies agreed that Saddam was unlikely to use illegal weapons or give them to terrorists unless attacked.

But both U.S. and British officials said the possibility of Saddam giving weapons to terror groups was a reason to invade.

Blair, whose popularity has sagged after taking his country to war, told his restless Labor Party on Tuesday that he would make the same decision again.

"Iraq has divided the international community, it has divided the party, the country, families, friends. And I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry," Blair told the party's annual conference.

"I know many believe profoundly that the action we took was wrong. I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me," he said. "I ask just one thing: Attack my decision, but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again."