MANAMA, Bahrain – Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a "world-class liar" who is trying to fool the world into thinking he has no interest in weapons of mass destruction, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told U.S. troops Monday on this island nation in the Persian Gulf.
Addressing several hundred sailors and Marines at U.S. Navy Central Command headquarters, Rumsfeld left no doubt he believes Iraq is pursuing stocks of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in defiance of U.N. resolutions that ended the 1991 Gulf War.
In emphatic tones, the defense secretary noted a public assertion by Saddam's government that it has no weapons of mass destruction and is making no effort to acquire them.
"He's lying. It's not complicated," Rumsfeld said.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry in Baghdad issued a statement Sunday asserting the government has neither made nor possessed weapons of mass destruction in more than a decade.
"Iraq has said on many occasions that it is not concerned with entering the mass destruction weapons club. ... We left it in 1991," the official statement said. The reference was to the six-week-long Persian Gulf War.
"If you want to know a world-class liar, it's Saddam Hussein," Rumsfeld told the troops, who gathered in a courtyard, fans stirring the sticky night air.
Earlier Monday, at a news conference in Kuwait City, Rumsfeld said the Iraqi claim cannot be trusted.
"It is false, not true, inaccurate and typical," he said.
"They have had an active program to develop nuclear weapons," Rumsfeld said. "It's also clear they are actively developing biological weapons" and used chemical weapons against their own Kurdish population in the 1980s.
Without saying it explicitly, Rumsfeld left a clear impression that he believes the United States may take pre-emptive military action against Iraq.
Vice President Dick Cheney also cited Iraq as a threat in making a case Monday for an active U.S. attitude toward countering terrorism. President Bush, who spoke of "pre-emptive action when necessary" in a graduation speech this month at the U.S. Military Academy, plans to formalize the "strike-first" policy this year when he presents his first national security strategy to Congress.
Cheney said U.S. officials are especially worried by "any possible linkup" between Saddam's government and terrorist networks, given Saddam's propensity for using chemical weapons.
"We have a responsibility to answer this growing peril," Cheney said in a Washington speech to the International Democrat Union, a group of mostly conservative officials from several countries. "Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists would expose the civilized world to the worst of all possible horrors, and we will not allow it."
Meanwhile, the State Department disclosed Monday that U.S. officials have met with Iraqi opposition leaders on the best ways to mobilize against Saddam and to prepare for the post-Saddam era.
In Kuwait and Bahrain, Rumsfeld met with senior government officials, including Kuwaiti Defense Minister Sheik Jabir al-Mubarak and his Bahraini counterpart, Gen. Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.
A reporter asked Rumsfeld what he thought of Iraq's recent pledge to respect Kuwait's sovereignty and to restore full relations with the Kuwaiti government. He said accepting Iraq's word of good intentions toward Kuwait "would be like the lion inviting the chicken to embrace."
"What good, in the past, have Iraqi representations of good will to its neighbors been? Precious little," he said. "Should hope spring eternal? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the risks."
Rumsfeld said he invited Kuwaiti government representatives to meet with a dozen Kuwaitis who are among the more than 300 Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters captured in Afghanistan and held prisoner at a U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
Rumsfeld told reporters the Kuwaitis' meeting at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would have two purposes: to glean additional intelligence from the prisoners and to determine "if there is any law enforcement interest" in them.
It marked the first time Rumsfeld has acknowledged publicly the nationality of Arabs held at Guantanamo Bay and specified how many of any specific nationality are imprisoned.
"You are the people who stand between freedom and fear, between our people and a dangerous adversary that cannot be appeased, cannot be ignored and cannot be allowed to win," he told about 1,000 troops assembled in an air-conditioned gymnasium on a 110-degree Kuwait afternoon Sunday.
Rumsfeld left little doubt he was aiming his words at Iraq, which he often says is among nations that support international terror groups and could help them gain access to weapons of mass destruction.
These states, he said, "do need to be stopped so that they cannot threaten or hold free people hostage to blackmail or terror."
From Bahrain, Rumsfeld was scheduled to visit Qatar on Tuesday, then travel to India and Pakistan to continue Bush administration efforts to persuade the nuclear-armed neighbors to defuse military tensions over Kashmir.