TBILISI, Georgia—Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Saturday that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may not have had the massive weapons stockpiles that the Bush administration claimed before it went to war to topple his regime.
While making clear he believes the war was justified nonetheless, Powell said that if caches of chemical and biological arms are not found, the reasons for the error must be determined.
The secretary of state's remarks, made to reporters as he flew to this nation in the Caucasus, appeared to be the farthest any top U.S. official has gone in publicly acknowledging questions about the case President Bush made against Iraq before last March's invasion.
Powell's comments came a day after David Kay, who led the team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said that he does not believe Iraq had chemical and biological arms when the war started last year.
Kay left his post Friday. Asked about Kay's remarks in an interview with the Reuters news agency, Powell said:
"The open question is, how many stocks they had, if any, and if they had any, where did they go, and if they didn't have any, then why wasn't that known beforehand?"
The failure to find banned nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, or evidence of robust programs to make them, has kept alive criticism of Bush and could prove to be a significant election-year issue.
Asked whether Kay's assessment was correct or whether Powell was correct in suggesting during a U.N. appearance last February that Iraq had large unaccounted-for stocks of toxins and poison gas, Powell replied: "I think the answer to the question is, I don't know yet."
The secretary of state's caution contrasted with the more aggressive tone from the White House.
"Yes, we believe he had them, and yes we believe they will be found," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday. "We believe the truth will come out."
Vice President Dick Cheney, who last week said the United States had not given up on finding unconventional weapons in Iraq, did not touch on the topic in a speech Saturday to world business leaders meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Powell vigorously defended the U.S. intelligence community, whose estimates of Iraq's weapons programs reflected the consensus of other foreign governments and President Bush's predecessor.
The secretary of state played a key role in making the U.S. case. He told the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003 that Iraq had failed to account for thousands of liters of deadly anthrax germs and for precursor chemicals that could make 500 tons of chemical arms.
Powell on Saturday blamed Saddam for much of the uncertainty.
"What we demanded of Iraq was that they account for all of this and they prove the negative of our hypothesis. All they did was make statements without proving it," he said.
Powell did not elaborate on what sort of retrospective or self-examination should be conducted if no weapons are found. Congressional committees already are examining the use of U.S. intelligence on Iraq and the CIA is doing its own in-house review under former deputy director Richard Kerr.
Kay's replacement, former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, has previously said he does not expect new caches of WMD to be discovered in Iraq.
Powell flew to Tbilisi to attend the inauguration Sunday of new president Mikhail Saakashvili, a pro-American reformer who won elections following the "revolution of the roses" that ousted former president Eduard Shevardnadze in November.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.