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Exile leader says information on Iraq's weapons program was accurate

NEW YORK—Iraqi political leader Ahmad Chalabi on Tuesday denied allegations that he supplied the United States with flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's nuclear, biological and chemical-warfare programs.

Chalabi's comments came in his first U.S. appearance since questions have arisen about President Bush's charges that Saddam hid stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and a program to develop nuclear warheads.

Those allegations were Bush's main justification for invading Iraq. But American forces haven't uncovered any unconventional weapons there in two months of searching. Lawmakers in Congress are questioning whether the administration misused U.S. intelligence to mislead people into supporting the war.

Some current and former American military, diplomatic and intelligence officials have identified Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of exile groups that opposed Saddam, as sources of flawed intelligence that administration hard-liners used to justify war. They also dispute information provided by INC-supplied defectors about Saddam's alleged cooperation in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. No proof of such cooperation has been found.

"We gave very accurate information, and we produced people who we handed over to the United States who told them very significant things," Chalabi asserted.

"The weapons of mass destruction are in Iraq," he said before the Council on Foreign Relations, a private foreign-policy institute.

The CIA, which distanced itself from Chalabi in the mid-1990s after a failed INC-sponsored coup against Saddam, spurned the group's information. But Chalabi's allies in the Pentagon, who distrusted the CIA and funded the INC's information-gathering activities, created a special Pentagon office in which INC information was melded with raw intelligence from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The resulting assumptions and analyses, according to current and former U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and military officials, were used by Vice President Dick Cheney and other pro-invasion officials to bolster the case for toppling Saddam.

Chalabi, who was favored by hard-liners in the Pentagon and Cheney's office as a possible successor to Saddam, said one defector whom the INC turned over knew the locations of biological-warfare sites. Another defector, he said, told U.S. officials about mobile biological-weapons laboratories, two of which are now in American custody.

Bush insists that illicit weapons will be found. The United Nations ordered Iraq to end nuclear, biological and chemical warfare programs after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Chalabi, who fled Iraq with his family after a 1958 military coup, is a former banker who was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan in 1992, a conviction he disparages as political. For years, he lobbied in Washington for a U.S. military operation to topple Saddam.

Chalabi said Tuesday that the INC provided the United States with three defectors who had personal knowledge of Saddam's illicit weapons programs.

"One of the people we handed over back in December 2001, we never saw him again," Chalabi said. "They (U.S. officials) thought that he was so important they put him in the Witness Protection Program."

He said the man, an engineer who specialized in concrete injection techniques, had worked to make Iraqi biological-warfare facilities undetectable by high-tech sensors.

Another defector, introduced to U.S. officials in Amman, Jordan, on an undisclosed date, provided a description of truck trailers equipped to produce germs for weapons, Chalabi said. A majority of intelligence officials believe the trailers in U.S. custody were mobile biological-warfare laboratories.

American officials refused to talk with the third defector, Chalabi said.

While Chalabi said he was convinced that illicit weapons would be uncovered in Iraq, he criticized the U.S. military's search. He said the United States hadn't pursued Iraqis who were involved in the programs aggressively enough immediately after Saddam fell.

"I don't think they (American troops) have (in custody) many of the scientists who were in his (Saddam's) weapons program at this time. There were thousands of people, engineers and scientists. They know where the weapons are," Chalabi said. "They should have gone and sought them out right away. The main scientists, some of them are not even in Iraq. Some of them have left for the gulf. We get reports of them going out of the country."

"It's the same situation with finding Saddam," he continued, saying the U.S. military hasn't pursued the deposed dictator zealously enough.

He said that as recently as several weeks ago, the INC had heard of sightings of Saddam in an arc running northeast and west of Baghdad.

Saddam is offering to pay a bounty for every American soldier who is killed, Chalabi contended, although a senior defense official said the Pentagon had no U.S. reports of such a bounty. The official declined to be identified because he was speaking about classified information.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): chalabi+rivals

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