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Democrats to conduct investigation into Iraq weapons allegations

WASHINGTON—Partisan bickering over intelligence that President Bush used to justify the war on Iraq escalated Friday as minority Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee announced they would conduct their own investigation.

The panel's senior Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan, said the Democrats had decided to undertake their own review because the panel's Republican chairman, John Warner of Virginia, had spurned an offer for a bipartisan inquiry.

Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives have been calling for a complete and open investigation into whether Bush and his top lieutenants exaggerated or misrepresented intelligence on Saddam Hussein's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs, his alleged ties to Osama bin Laden and the threat that Iraq posed to the United States.

Majority Republicans so far have agreed only to closed-door reviews of CIA documents by the House and Senate intelligence committees. They accuse the Democrats of trying to politicize the issue in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election campaign.

Levin's announcement of the Democratic inquiry came a day before he and Warner were scheduled to leave for a fact-finding visit to Iraq.

In a letter sent Thursday to Levin, Warner said a decision on whether the Senate Armed Services Committee should conduct its own investigation of Iraq intelligence should await the results of the Senate Intelligence Committee's inquiry. He noted that Democrats and Republicans on the intelligence panel had reached an accord on how to conduct their review.

"As the committee with oversight responsibility over all elements of the intelligence community, the Senate Intelligence Committee is the appropriate committee to conduct such a review," Warner wrote.

He added that the Armed Services Committee would continue hearings on the ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq, where American troops are facing daily attacks by paramilitary fighters, members of Saddam's former ruling Baath Party, foreign extremists and increasingly disgruntled Iraqis.

But Levin said the Armed Services Committee should examine how the Defense Department used the intelligence to plan and conduct the war.

He said Warner recognized the Democrats' right to conduct their own inquiry and that in his letter, the veteran Republican lawmaker had indicated that "there may be instances along the way where his staff would join my staff."

The Bush administration cited the dangers posed by Iraq's illicit weapons and alleged cooperation with bin Laden's al-Qaida network as the chief reasons for the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam.

But some senior diplomatic, intelligence and military officials have charged that Bush and his top aides made assertions about Iraq's banned weapons programs and alleged links to al-Qaida that weren't supported by credible intelligence, and that they ignored intelligence that didn't support their policies.

Among the examples they cite are contentions, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, that Iraq had restarted the nuclear weapons program that was all but destroyed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and by U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

These officials also assert that information that was in dispute within the intelligence community was presented as fact by the administration, and that analysts were pressured to produce findings that supported Bush's case against Iraq.

The administration denies the allegations.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee agreed Thursday to look into a Pentagon office run by pro-invasion hard-liners that processed intelligence from Iraqi exiles who were considered untrustworthy by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department.

Two months after Baghdad fell, the United States has yet to find any illicit weapons or compelling evidence that Saddam and al-Qaida were conspiring to attack American targets.

U.S. officials, however, say they are confident that illicit weapons will be found and that new information, which they refused to disclose, bolsters their charges of cooperation between the deposed Iraqi dictator and al-Qaida.


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