Abizaid perplexed about Iraqi intelligence reports

Thursday, June 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's nominee to oversee U.S. forces in Iraq told a Senate panel Wednesday that he is perplexed that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction have not been found, but is confident they will be.

Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, nominated to replace Gen. Tommy Franks as head of U.S. Central Command, also said the number of U.S. soldiers will likely be reduced from the current 145,000, but that "for the foreseeable future, we will require a large number of troops for Iraq."

His confirmation hearing came as both the Senate Armed Services and Senate Intelligence committees have begun reviewing the accuracy of prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. That intelligence served as the basis for the war, but has been called into question in the United States and abroad because no weapons have been found.

Asked whether he believed weapons intelligence had been manipulated, as some Democrats have charged, Abizaid said: "I firmly believe there was no distortion of intelligence."

"I really believe that the intelligence communities did their best to give us their best judgment," he said. "That we didn't get it completely right is what I consider to be a fact. Will we figure out what we didn't know? I think we will."

Now the second-in-command under Franks, Abizaid received a warm reception from the Armed Services Committee and is unlikely to face major obstacles to his confirmation by the full Senate.

Senators said his personal and professional background made him uniquely qualified for the high-profile position overseeing U.S. military operations from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Abizaid has experience from military operations in Kosovo, Bosnia and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He is the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, fluent in Arabic, and holds a master's degree in Middle East studies from Harvard.

Abizaid said U.S. intelligence was extremely accurate in pinpointing Iraqi troop positions and in leading to the capture of 32 of the most-wanted Iraqis, but was "perplexingly incomplete" on weapons of mass destruction.

He said he remains confident that "at some point, it (the intelligence) will lead us to actual weapons of mass destruction."

Abizaid said U.S. forces had a lot of intelligence that it should expect weapons of mass destruction to be used against them as they neared Baghdad. That intelligence seemed to be confirmed as "an incredible amount of defensively oriented chemical equipment" was found in Iraqi hands early in the campaign.

"I thought as we crossed what we termed the red line that we would overrun artillery units that had chemical warheads," he said. But no weapons were found.

Chairman John Warner, R-Va., suggested that the speed of the U.S offensive could have prevented Iraq from deploying the weapons, but Abizaid was doubtful.

"I believe that if we had interrupted the movement of chemical weapons from the depots to the guns, that we would have found them in the depots. But we've looked in the depots, and they're not there," he said.

Abizaid said the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will likely be reduced after the current offensive against anti-U.S. forces is completed. That offensive will be evaluated around June 30, he said.

The size of the U.S. force will depend on the number of reliable police serving in Iraq, the number of non-U.S. forces entering the country and the progress in setting up an Iraqi army, he said. He said 30,000 foreign troops are expected by September.

Responding to a question about continuing violence against U.S. forces, Abizaid said: "We are certainly in for some difficult days ahead," but added that "it wouldn't be safe to say that the situation is going to continue to get worse."

He said it is "an open question" whether Saddam is alive, but that getting an answer is important.

"I believe that the Baathist Party's 30-year reign of terror will not come to an end easily until we can show them that not only can we get 32 of the 52 (most wanted), but we can get 52 of the 52," he said.

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