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U.S. had to act against Iraq, Cheney says

WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday defended the Bush administration's decision to wage war in Iraq, arguing that ignoring the threat Saddam Hussein posed "would have been irresponsible in the extreme."

Cheney quoted from an October intelligence document that said Iraq was continuing to build weapons of mass destruction in defiance of United Nations restrictions and probably would have nuclear weapons during this decade. Portions of that National Intelligence Estimate, a summary based on the work of several agencies, were declassified last week.

"Those charged with the security of this nation could not read such an assessment and pretend that it did not exist," Cheney said in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center in Washington.

"Knowing these things, how could we, I ask, have allowed that threat to stand?" he said. "When the decision fell to him, President Bush was not willing to place the future of our security and the lives of our citizens at the mercy of Saddam Hussein. And so the president acted."

Cheney's forceful defense came after weeks of criticism over the mounting U.S. death toll in Iraq and faulty intelligence on Iraqi efforts to purchase uranium in Africa that found its way into the president's State of the Union address. That claim has been discredited and the White House has been accused of exaggerating the Iraqi threat to justify military action.

The administration also has been embarrassed by its failure, so far, to find weapons of mass destruction or Saddam himself. A boost did come earlier this week when military officials announced they had killed Saddam's sons Odai and Qusai in a firefight in northern Iraq.

Cheney made no mention Thursday of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, nor did he address the claim that the Iraqi regime had tried to buy uranium from Niger.

He did say that critics of the American-led military action should consider what Iraq would look like today if the United States hadn't intervened, and he outlined a grisly and frightening scenario: Saddam and his two sons would still be in power, torture chambers would be operating, mass graves would remain undiscovered, terrorist networks would be using Iraq as a haven and Saddam would still have the fortune and power to build a dangerous weapons program.

"All of these crimes and dangers were ended by decisive military action," Cheney said.

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

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