WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction was "perplexingly incomplete," Gen. John P. Abizaid, President Bush's nominee to head the U.S. Central Command, told a Senate committee Wednesday.
"Intelligence was the most accurate that I've ever seen on the tactical level, probably the best I've ever seen on the operational level, and perplexingly incomplete on the strategic level with regard to weapons of mass destruction," Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Abizaid's comments during confirmation hearings came as the Bush administration faces greater scrutiny from Congress on the decision to go to war. Lawmakers are questioning experts behind closed doors and poring over documents to determine whether the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein or pressured intelligence analysts to skew their reports. In Britain, a parliamentary inquiry is examining whether Prime Minister Tony Blair's government did the same.
Both governments have denied any wrongdoing.
As U.S. and allied forces prepared to invade Iraq, Abizaid told senators, he asked his staff at the U.S. Central Command's temporary headquarters in Qatar, "Is there anybody around this table who believes we will not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?" No one said no, he recalled.
And as U.S. forces moved north toward Baghdad, "I thought as we crossed what we termed the red line that we would overrun artillery units that had chemical warheads," the general said.
Abizaid, who was second in command to Gen. Tommy Franks during the war, said he could not explain why banned weapons had not been found despite nearly 1,000 visits to suspect sites.
"It is perplexing to me, Senator, that we have not found weapons of mass destruction, when the evidence was so pervasive that it would exist," he said. "I can't offer a reasonable explanation.... I don't know, and I think that we won't know for a while."
Both the British government and the Bush administration argued before the war that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and a program to develop nuclear weapons and that these posed such an immediate threat to its neighbors and the United States that war was necessary to disarm the country.
U.S. officials have scaled back those claims in recent weeks and now increasingly argue that Hussein's regime instead planned to reconstitute its unconventional arms programs if U.N. sanctions were lifted.
Evidence for that argument was strengthened Wednesday when the CIA confirmed a CNN report that a former Iraqi nuclear scientist, Mahdi Shukur Ubaydi, had led intelligence officials to a cache of nuclear-related components and a 2-foot stack of documents he buried in 1991 under a rosebush at his Baghdad home.
The materials were from Iraq's vast but unsuccessful nuclear weapons programs of the 1980s. The cache had been hidden illegally from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who were responsible for dismantling Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons infrastructure after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Iraq's nuclear weapons effort was in effect destroyed by 1998, according to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency.
Ubaydi said the buried components were "part of a secret high-level plan to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program once sanctions ended," a U.S. intelligence official in Washington said.
"This is significant, but it doesn't prove Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program," the official said. "But their existence validates our long-standing view that Iraq had hidden nuclear technology."
The official said the components appeared to be from a sub-critical gas centrifuge machine, a highly technical system used to enrich uranium as fuel for nuclear weapons. He said the documents included blueprints, reports and technical diagrams that "related to centrifuge design, construction and operation."
The official said Ubaydi has left Iraq and is cooperating with U.S. intelligence, but he is not in U.S. custody.
At the congressional proceeding, Abizaid's remarks fueled increasing criticism from Democrats over the administration's justification for going to war.
"I've never believed the assertions about nuclear capability. I've never believed the assertions about the capability of being able to disseminate, in ways that would kill large numbers of American people or any other citizens, those chemical weapons they had.... I never saw any evidence of this massive biological capability that we were told or implied that they had," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I believe they hyped that, and I believe they hyped that for a specific reason: to create a sense of urgency."
Pressed by reporters about Abizaid's statements, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that "what the administration has said is exactly what the best analysts in the intelligence agencies have reported for a considerable period of time, and that is that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons and the means to produce them ... and we stand by it."
Abizaid, who is of Lebanese descent and speaks several languages, including Arabic, is a West Point graduate from Coleville, Calif., and a veteran infantryman who served as Franks' deputy throughout the war. He has served in a series of field commands. In 1983, he led a Ranger rifle company during the invasion of Grenada. Abizaid served with U.N. forces in Lebanon and oversaw relief operations in northern Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War. He also served as commander of West Point and as director of the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As the Bush administration defends its rationale for invading Iraq, it also faces increasing criticism over persistent postwar security problems, troop levels and the costs of military occupation and reconstruction.
Abizaid said the 145,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq appeared sufficient and would probably "come down" once the current campaign against Iraqi guerrilla fighters ends. But "for the foreseeable future, we will require a large number of troops for Iraq," he said, adding that he expects an estimated 30,000 troops from other nations to supplement coalition forces in Iraq between now and September.
"There are a lot of people in the Middle East that believe that our weakness is our inability to stay the course, and they believe that two casualties today, two casualties tomorrow, four the next day will eventually drive us out," Abizaid said. "And it is a belief that they hold firmly, and we need to be just as firm that we can't be driven out."
The general said capturing Hussein would improve security.
"It's very important to confirm or deny whether Saddam Hussein is alive or dead. It's important because the fear factor is high. It's important because he was a brutal dictator that killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. And it's important for the Iraqi people to come to closure with this nightmare that he imposed on them."
Abizaid said attacks on U.S. troops are carried out by Baath Party loyalists, Islamic militants from other nations and common criminals. He said the military is responding aggressively to the attacks.
"Every terrorist that we find and kill in the Middle East is one less that'll find his way to the United States to kill us here," Abizaid said. "So we need to bring the war to them."
Biden and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, predict that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq for at least five years, and on Wednesday they called for Bush to allow troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to join the American-led force now in the country.
"NATO in Iraq is imperative," Lugar told reporters.
"We need to quickly patch up the relationships within NATO and take all offers of help in Iraq as quickly as possible," he said.
Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.