Vice President Dick Cheney, a leading advocate of the war in Iraq rarely heard in the public debate, on Sunday strongly defended his prewar claims that Iraq posed a chemical, biological and nuclear threat and that it had links to Al Qaeda.
Cheney is the latest Bush administration figure to speak out forcefully on Iraq policy, from the rationale for the invasion to postwar security and reconstruction. President Bush addressed the nation last week, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Iraq on Sunday.
Democrats and even some Republicans have questioned the handling of the Iraq campaign, which has been beset by ongoing violence. On Sunday, one U.S. soldier was killed and three others were injured in Fallouja, a day after residents wielding guns pledged to avenge the accidental shooting of at least eight Iraqi policemen and a Jordanian security guard by American troops.
Cheney denied that U.S. troops have become “bogged down” in Iraq and pressed for funds to get “the job done right.” But even as the vice president made his case, leading Democrats, eyeing new polls showing public concerns about the price tag, called for a freeze on Bush’s tax cuts to help defray the administration’s request for an additional $87 billion to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In his comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cheney was forceful in discussing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of such arms was one of the main justifications for the invasion, and Cheney had stated the case in starker terms than any other major administration figure.
“The whole notion that somehow there’s nothing to the notion that Saddam Hussein had or had developed WMD just strikes me as fallacious,” Cheney said on the show. “Nobody drove into Baghdad and had somebody say, ‘Hey, there’s the building where all of our WMDs are stored.’ But that’s not the way the system worked.”
Questioned by host Tim Russert, Cheney acknowledged that he had been wrong to claim, as he did on “Meet the Press” before the war, that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons.
“Yeah, I did misspeak,” Cheney said. “I said repeatedly during the show, ‘weapons capability.’ We never had any evidence that [Hussein] had acquired a nuclear weapon.”
Cheney said he believed David Kay, the CIA special advisor directing the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, might well find evidence of chemical and other banned arms “buried inside [Hussein’s] civilian infrastructure.”
He cited the case of an Iraqi scientist who came forward with plans and components for a centrifuge that could be used to process uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
“That’s physical evidence that we’ve got in hand today,” Cheney said. “So to suggest that there is no evidence that [Hussein] had aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons, I don’t think is valid. And I think David Kay will find more evidence ... that, in fact, [Hussein] had a robust plan, had previously worked on it and would work on it again.”
The materials the scientist turned over had been buried since 1991 and are only a small part of the equipment needed to produce nuclear arms.
The inability to find banned weapons has led critics to charge that the administration may have misread or even manipulated intelligence information.
Claims about Iraq’s nuclear program were the source of a previous embarrassment for the administration. Bush said in his State of the Union message that, according to British intelligence, Iraq had tried to acquire raw materials for a bomb in Africa. But it turned out that the CIA had deemed there was insufficient evidence to make such an assertion. Director George J. Tenet apologized for allowing it to get into Bush’s speech.
Cheney dismissed speculation that his intense interest in Iraq’s weapons has resulted in pressure on U.S. intelligence analysts. “I ask a hell of a lot of questions -- that’s my job,” Cheney said.
But “I’m not willing at all ... to buy the proposition that somehow Saddam Hussein was innocent and he had no WMD, and some guy at the CIA, because I called him, cooked up a report saying he did,” Cheney added. “That’s crazy.”
While no proof has emerged that Hussein, who is still being hunted, was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, Cheney said there is evidence of a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda during most of the 1990s.
“It involved training on [biological weapons] and [chemical weapons],” he said. “Al Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems.” A man wanted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing received safe haven in Iraq afterward, Cheney added.
Cheney called the war on terrorism a “continuing enterprise,” and while lamenting U.S. casualties, said, “The price we have had to pay is not out of line, and certainly wouldn’t lead me to suggest or think the strategy is flawed.”
Sunday’s attack on U.S. troops occurred in the area known as the Sunni Triangle, a hotbed of resistance. A bomb struck the Humvee in which the Americans were traveling.
According to Massoud Ibrahim Azzawi, 18, a soft drink vendor who saw the incident, a number of U.S. soldiers in Humvees had gathered near the entrance to the city when there was an explosion and “we saw three soldiers fall on the ground.”
A military helicopter, called in to rescue the injured, was attacked as well and was unable to pick up the wounded men, eyewitnesses said. A second helicopter evacuated them.
The assailants got away, Azzawi said. As of Sunday, 292 U.S. soldiers had died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Britain reported 49 soldiers killed, and Denmark, one.
Fallouja’s mayor, Taha Badawi Hamid, predicted that “tension will increase” in his city, but said that Americans could calm the situation if they apologized to the families of the Iraqi policemen killed by “friendly fire” and compensated them.
Not everyone was so sanguine. Capt. Rashid Hameed, a police officer, said that it would be difficult to quell the anger.
The policemen who were killed were all “relatives, neighbors or friends of the people of Fallouja, and those people believe they were intentionally murdered by the Americans.... We are a tribal society, and we have our own social traditions.
“People here still hold traditional feelings of retaliation,” Badawi said. Under tribal law, for every friend or relative killed, four of the enemy should be killed in revenge, he said.
In Washington, Democrats said they will try to freeze Bush’s tax cuts to pay for the additional $87 billion he has requested.
Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington and Rubin from Iraq. Associated Press contributed to this report.