WASHINGTON Both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell contended Friday that a vial of botulinum bacteria found in Iraq is evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons intent. But the chief U.S. weapons inspector said the vial had been stored for safekeeping in an Iraqi scientist's refrigerator since 1993. He offered no evidence it had been used in a weapons program during the last decade.
Inspector David Kay also said American weapons hunters had found no evidence that Iraq has recently tried to import a semi-refined form of uranium from Niger or anywhere else. Bush cited that claim in his State of the Union address, although administration officials later acknowledged it was based on shaky intelligence and should not have been included.
Kay's search teams did locate documents suggesting another country in Africa which Kay refused to identify had offered uranium to Iraq, although it does not appear the deal went through. "We don't have any evidence it moved beyond what was probably an unsolicited offer," Kay said.
Kay had reported to Congress on Thursday that his team has so far found no weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq. But Bush said Friday the Iraq war was justified and cited a handful of evidence in particular including the vial of bacteria as proof Kay found ample signs Saddam "was a danger to the world."
"The report states that Saddam Hussein's regime had a clandestine network of biological laboratories, a live strain of deadly agent botulinum, sophisticated concealment efforts and advanced design work on prohibited longer-range missiles," Bush told reporters before leaving for a daylong trip to Milwaukee.
Powell also cited the discovery of the vial of bacteria, along with confirmation that Iraq was trying to develop longer-range missiles than the United Nations had permitted.
"We are more convinced by the Kay report that we did the right thing," Powell told reporters. "Do you think vials of botulism should constitute a weapon of mass destruction? . . . They never lost that capability. They never lost that intent."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher added: "You kill people with botuli. They have no other use."
The vial contained a live bacteria that make botulinum toxin a toxin that can be used as a biological weapon. But experts say there are many, complicated steps between possessing a vial of bacteria and producing enough of the toxin to create a weapon. That would require relatively sophisticated equipment and processing.
Kay also offered a number of theories as to why no weapons of mass destruction have turned up in Iraq, among them that weapons are in the country but are very well hidden or that weapons existed but were moved outside of Iraq.
Kay said it's possible Saddam didn't have any weapons but tried to bluff people in order to look stronger than he actually was. He said it's also possible that Saddam's scientists were fooling Saddam and were too afraid to tell him he didn't have any weapons.
The weapons inspector said Iraqis who have been interviewed by his team have provided information pointing toward each one of those theories.
As details of Kay's report continued to emerge, Bush shrugged off polls showing rising doubts about whether the war was worth the costs. "Sometimes the American people like the decisions I make, sometimes they don't." he told reporters. "But they need to know I make tough decisions, based upon what I think is right, given the intelligence I know."
But Democrats, already hammering the president over his $87 billion request for military and rebuilding operations in Iraq, quickly latched onto Kay's interim report as further proof that the attack on Iraq was ill-advised.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, emerging from a briefing with Kay, said it was "clear to me that there was no imminence of a threat for weapons of mass destruction," as the White House had claimed.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, after a separate meeting with Kay on Friday, said the report reinforced the need to look into the reasons prewar intelligence "could have been so far off and ... whether or not it was exaggerated or whether or not it was hyped, either by the intelligence community or by the users of that intelligence."
Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report