Iraqi official: Saddam no longer a threat
Bush defends decision to go to war
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The first official to hold the rotating presidency of the Iraqi Governing Council said Wednesday that Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to the country.
"Saddam Hussein is no longer. He ended as soon as his regime ended. He is a person who is in hiding somewhere, and it is just a matter of time" before he is gone, said Ibrahim al Jafari, a leader of the Islamic Da'wah Party that the U.S.-sponsored interim council chose to be its first leader Wednesday.
A nine-member panel from the Iraqi Governing Council will share the rotating presidency. Each president will serve 30-day terms.
The council includes Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds.
Jafari, a Shiite, will be followed by Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Iyad Allawi, a former Baathist and longtime member of the exiled Iraqi opposition.
Jafari said that Saddam -- a member of the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq before the war -- damaged every family in the country.
Jafari said Iraqis "look forward to leading themselves."
He said he hopes the establishment of a permanent government will "not take much time."
"This is linked to other aspects like achieving the political balance inside Iraq, and on the other hand, the coordination with the United Nations and the coalition forces," Jafari said. "All these aspects will determine the time factor."
Within the last 24 hours, U.S. Central Command said Wednesday that raids and patrols in Iraq have resulted in 559 arrests, including two in slayings, and the seizure of three artillery pieces. About 50 caliber rounds found in the Fallujah area were destroyed by an explosive ordnance team, the military said.
Troops conducted 51 raids, 953 day patrols and 737 night patrols, Central Command said.
Since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, 49 U.S. troops have died in hostile action in Iraq. A total of 247 U.S. troops have been killed since the Iraq war began in March. (Interactive: U.S. deaths)
Bush: U.S. hunts for Saddam
Facing criticism at home and abroad over his administration's rationale for war with Iraq, Bush on Wednesday defended his decision to invade the country.
No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq to date, but the president said that he is sure that the deposed Iraqi leader had a weapons program.
"I'm confident the truth will come out, and there is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to U.S. security and a threat to peace in the region," Bush said at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden.
The CIA chief in charge of seeking weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq will testify Thursday on Capitol Hill that while U.S. forces have not found concrete evidence of WMDs, there is evidence Saddam Hussein had an active program to produce them, government officials said Wednesday. David Kay will testify along with senior Pentagon officials in classified sessions.
The Bush administration has been under fire since the revelation that discredited intelligence surfaced in his State of the Union address in January. Citing British intelligence, Bush said then that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium from Africa.
When asked if he took responsibility for the line in his State of the Union address, Bush said, "I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course.
"I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace. And I analyzed a thorough body of intelligence -- good, solid, sound intelligence that led me to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Bush defended National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, whose deputy, Stephen Hadley, took partial responsibility for allowing the inclusion of the claim in the speech.
"Dr. Condoleezza Rice is an honest, fabulous person, and America is lucky to have her service -- period," Bush said.
Bush said U.S. forces are on the trail of Saddam.
"I don't know how close we are to getting Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "Closer than we were yesterday, I guess, but we're on the hunt." (Full story)
Earlier Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that his government has yet to convince the public that the Iraq war was justified.
When asked at a news conference if he thought voters distrusted his office, Blair said: "I accept there is an issue which we have to confront."
Blair's popularity has plummeted in Britain, with 42 percent telling a CNN poll that they believe he intentionally misled the public over Iraqi weapons. (Full story)
• The CIA said Wednesday the voice on the latest purported audiotape from Saddam is likely that of the deposed dictator. In the tape, which was broadcast Tuesday by an Arabic-language television channel, Saddam acknowledges that his sons are dead and expresses pride in them, calling them martyrs. U.S. forces killed Uday and Qusay Hussein last week in Mosul. (Gallery: Timeline of the attack) "The souls of great people have been elevated as martyrs and returned to its creator. They are like precious birds in the presence of merciful God," the speaker on the tape said. (Profiles: Qusay Hussein, Uday Hussein)
• The first U.N.-assisted return of Iraqi refugees since Saddam's fall brought rejoicing Wednesday in the southern city of Basra, with the arrival of 240 people who had spent 12 years in camps in the Saudi Arabian desert. However, the U.N. refugee agency said that Iraq isn't ready for a mass return of exiles.
• U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday the Bush administration needs to be frank with the American public about the costs, resources and time needed for the Iraqi occupation. "People are frustrated," the Delaware lawmaker said. "Let's level with them so we don't lose their support in an essential operation." (CNN Access)