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Iraq didn't pose immediate threat to U.S., report concludes

WASHINGTON—Iraqi weapons programs threatened regional and global security in the long run, but they weren't an immediate danger to the United States—a key reason the Bush administration gave for going to war, says a report being released Thursday.

The report also found no conclusive evidence to support administration claims that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaida or would have transferred chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to the terrorist group, another major justification for the war.

The 61-page study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan research institution, faults the intelligence community for failing to make an accurate assessment of the status of Saddam's illicit weapons and missile programs.

It criticizes President Bush and top officials for "systematically" misrepresenting the threats posed by those programs, even beyond the evidence presented by faulty intelligence analyses.

"This is the first comprehensive review of everything we knew or thought we knew about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert and an author of the six-month study.

"In doing that review, it becomes clear that many things we thought were working, like our intelligence assessment process, were not, and things that we thought were not working, like the U.N. inspection process, actually were."

What has become clear from the study, said Cirincione, "is that this war wasn't necessary."

"We were already accomplishing what the president hoped to accomplish during the war," he said. "We had shut down these programs."

Among the report's other key findings:

_The extent of Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons programs was "largely knowable" before the war. Iraq's nuclear program had been dismantled and there "was no convincing evidence of its reconstitution." United Nations weapons inspectors discovered as early as 1991 that Iraqi nerve agents had lost "most of their lethality." Operations Desert Storm in 1991 and Desert Fox in 1998, coupled with U.N. inspections and sanctions, had "effectively destroyed" Iraq's capabilities to produce these weapons on a mass scale.

_Prior to 2002, the intelligence community "appears to have overestimated" the extent of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq but had a "generally accurate" picture of its nuclear and missile programs.

_The intelligence picture was much less clear regarding Iraq's biological weapons, but "the real threat lay in what could be achieved in the future rather than in what had been produced in the past or existed in the present."

_It's unlikely that Iraq could have hidden, destroyed or sent out of the country the "hundreds of tons" of chemical and biological weapons and dozens of Scud missiles that administration officials claimed were present without the United States detecting signs of them before, during or after the war.

_Intelligence assessments after 2002, coupled with the creation of a separate intelligence cell in the Pentagon, "suggest that the intelligence community began to be unduly influenced by policymakers' views sometime in 2002."

The report recommends that Congress create an independent, blue-ribbon panel to assess the quality and handling of intelligence on Iraq before the war. It suggests that Congress consider making the director of central intelligence a professional position, rather than a political appointment. The report also recommends that the Bush administration drop the doctrine of unilateral, pre-emptive war from its national security strategy unless there's a clear and imminent threat from a potential rogue nation.

More than 1,200 investigators with the Iraq Survey Group have spent months scouring Iraq for evidence that Saddam continued his weapons programs in violation of 1991 U.N. sanctions, but they have failed to turn up evidence. There have been reports recently that CIA adviser David Kay, who is leading the effort, may resign.

The report also comes as the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees are working on their assessments of the quality and handling of intelligence over Iraq's weapons programs. But those efforts, which began in the fall, are largely split along partisan lines.

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(For more information on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, go to www.ceip.org.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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