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Rumsfeld dismisses concerns over intelligence

Defense chief: Uranium claim small part of evidence for war

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the decision to go to war before a Senate panel.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the decision to go to war before a Senate panel.

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President Bush defends his decision to go to war with Iraq.
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Calls arise for a probe into Bush's assertion that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is rejecting concerns that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was based on faulty intelligence, calling a now-retracted report about Iraqi uranium purchases "one scrap" of a larger picture.

"The United States did not choose war. Saddam Hussein did," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

"[The Iraqi government] had an international obligation to destroy its weapons of mass destruction and to prove to the world that they had done so. He refused to do so."

The White House has admitted that a false claim that Iraq tried to obtain uranium oxide -- known as yellowcake -- from Niger was included in the State of the Union address in January as President Bush was trying to rally support for the invasion of Iraq.

In that speech, Bush cited British intelligence, saying Iraq had been trying to purchase the uranium from Africa and suggesting Saddam's regime was attempting to restart a nuclear weapons program in violation of U.N. resolutions.

Sources said Wednesday that early drafts of the speech cited American intelligence about Niger and the uranium, but intelligence officials urged the removal of the information because they did not have "high confidence" in it.

At that point, other sources said, the president's speechwriters apparently decided to include the assertion anyway -- attributing it to a British report that already was public.

CIA officials declined comment on how the information in the speech was put together.

Administration officials have tried to minimize the importance of the admission that the claim was false.

"The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder," Rumsfeld said.

He said the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington in 2001 "changed our appreciation of our vulnerability" to attacks with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

In the debate over war, administration officials warned that Iraq could provide weapons of mass destruction -- perhaps even nuclear weapons -- to terrorists.

"Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," Bush said in an October speech in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Bush, Blair defend actions

But since Saddam's ouster in April, no banned weapons have been found. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic are questioning whether the U.S. and British governments exaggerated the Iraqi threat as they sought to win support for war.

The BBC reported Wednesday that a source "at the top" of the British government said he no longer believes weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq.

Asked about the report, a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to the British leader's insistence this week that he did not mislead the country ahead of the conflict and was justified in going to war.

Speaking during a visit to South Africa, Bush said he was "absolutely confident" in his decision to launch the war.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace, and there is no doubt in my mind that the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power," Bush said. (Bush defends war)

A Bush administration official said the president never would have included the uranium allegation in his speech if his advisers had known it was false. But a former U.S. ambassador said he reported nearly a year before the speech that the intelligence was bogus.

Officials in Niger told former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whom the CIA sent to Africa to look into the matter, that no uranium deal was done with Iraq.

U.N. nuclear inspectors determined in March that documents U.S. and British intelligence said supported the Niger accusation were forgeries.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that "the broader concerns remain valid."

"It's important to understand whether one specific sentence based on yellowcake was wrong, that does not change the fundamental case from being right," Fleischer said.

So far, all U.S. and British forces have turned up in Iraq have been two trailers that experts said may have been used to develop biological weapons and pieces of a centrifuge used to enrich uranium in Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapons program. An Iraqi scientist said he was ordered to bury centrifuge pieces in his rose garden in Baghdad to hide them from weapons inspectors.

"Just because they haven't yet been found doesn't mean they didn't exist," Fleischer said. "The burden is on the critics to explain where the weapons of mass destruction are."

In Britain, a parliamentary committee concluded this week that Blair had indeed misrepresented a dossier he called "further intelligence" about Iraq's weapons programs. That February document included an unattributed section of a student's thesis that had been posted on the Internet.

On Wednesday, Blair denied misleading Parliament "in any way at all."

"We made quite clear we acknowledged the mistake that one part of that briefing paper -- one part -- should have been sourced to a written record of a review that was published sometime before," Blair said. "That part of it that was expressed to be based on intelligence was indeed based on intelligence." (Blair: WMD reports 'accurate')

National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.


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