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Storm over U.S. Iraq admission

From CNN Correspondents Dana Bash and David Ensor

Bush made the allegation about Iraq in his State of the Union address in January.
Bush made the allegation about Iraq in his State of the Union address in January.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A political firestorm is erupting in the U.S. over President Bush's assertion that Iraq sought to buy nuclear material from Africa.

The White House has admitted that assertion -- made by Bush during the annual State of the Union address last January -- was based on faulty information.

The chairman of the opposition Democratic Party is accusing the Bush administration of a cover up and senior Senate democrats are calling for a full investigation.

The comments came after the White House released a statement admitting: "We now know that documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger had been forged."

"The other reporting that suggested Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that such attempts were in fact made," it said.

Senior White House officials said the speech was based on a broader range of intelligence.

"The issue of Iraq's attempts to acquire uranium from abroad was not an element underpinning the judgment reached by most intelligence agencies that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program," White House spokesman Michael Anton said Monday.

The assertion that Iraq was attempting to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program was a key point in the administration's rationale for war.

"It's bad enough that such a glaring blunder became part of the president's case for war. It's far worse if the case for war was made by deliberate deception," Senator Ted Kennedy said.

But Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum defended the administration.

He said it has been "very forthright ... as to what they knew and when they knew it and I think they had the best information that they thought was reliable at the time the president said it."

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota urged that "a full investigation of the facts surrounding this situation be undertaken, the sooner the better."

Forgeries

In his State of the Union address, Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Bush cited British intelligence, which had published a similar report last September.

In March, the International Atomic Energy Agency dismissed as forgeries documents that alleged Iraq may have tried to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger. (Full story)

A British panel also found intelligence on the Iraq allegations was inaccurate, according to reports.

start quoteThe British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.end quote
-- President Bush in January's State of the Union address

However, in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday stood by his government's claims that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapons program.

Blair has always claimed his government had separate sources for the alleged resumption of uranium trade between Iraq and Niger and that it did not rely on the documents the IAEA said were forgeries.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked Monday about an assertion by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson well before the Bush speech that the story the African nation had sold yellowcake uranium to Iraq was bogus. (Full story)

Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA.

Fleischer said there was "zero, nada, nothing new here" and that the administration had "long acknowledged the information was incorrect."

Fleischer said the administration did not know the information was false before the State of the Union address.

Illogical

It remains unclear why senior administration officials did not know about Wilson's report to the CIA.

U.S. officials said a report citing Wilson's conclusions was given to the White House and other agencies nearly a year before the president's State of the Union address.

The officials said the report said Nigerian officials denied the suggestion Iraq had tried to buy the uranium, and that given the entities controlling the mines, it was illogical there could have been such a contract with Niger.

A U.S. official said the report was just part of a "flood of paper" the White House gets daily.

"They got it," an official said, "but it would not surprise me if no one took it on board."

The White House called reporters late Monday to say, according to The New York Times, "There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa.

"However, the information is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made."


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