Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) says the intelligence around which the United States built its arguments for war in Iraq "isn't a figment of somebody's imagination," and Iraqi nuclear scientists could hold the key to proving the information is accurate.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Powell said the Bush administration believes Saddam Hussein (search) had both deadly weapons and programs to develop them. He suggested that the United States would help Iraqi scientists if they share what they know about Saddam's weapons.

"Saddam Hussein kept them together so that if the opportunity ever presented itself, he could create nuclear programs. We want to make sure those scientists are no longer kept together in a cell ... but that they go on to find other things to do," Powell said.

When U.S. and British teams finish their searches of suspected weapons hiding places, their interviews with knowledgeable Iraqis and their exhaustive review of documents, "it will lead us not only, we believe, to weapons that may exist, but to the programs themselves," Powell said.

"We believe there were weapons in Iraq. We have solid judgment of the intelligence community on this," Powell said.

The weapons Saddam was accused of making and hiding have not turned up, despite weeks of searching since the war in Iraq ended. That has prompted questions about the accuracy of the intelligence the United States used to glean information about Iraq's arsenal.

Two trailers have been found that U.S. officials said were part of mobile biological weapons labs, although that hasn't been proven conclusively. In the AP interview, Powell said the Bush administration would be able to "demonstrate convincingly" that the trailers were labs in which biological weapons could be made.

That aside, the United States has not been alone in alleging Iraq had weapons, Powell said. "As late as 1998, there never was a question in anybody's mind. Other intelligence organizations in other countries said so," he said.

"This isn't a figment of somebody's imagination. This isn't something that was overblown, or made up in the basement of the CIA late one night," Powell said. "These were real weapons, real programs, that Saddam Hussein refused to come forward and explain. ... Do you want to give Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt? Well, we didn't. And now we don't have to worry about it anymore."

The 20-minute interview, conducted in a State Department receiving room near Powell's office, came just minutes after Powell finished telephone calls toIsraeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) designed, Powell said, to ensure both men "remain committed to move forward" on the latest Middle East peace plan.

Before telephoning Abbas and Sharon, Powell spoke by phone to Foreign Ministers Silvan Shalom of Israel, Ahmed Maher of Egypt, Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Marwan Muasher of Jordan to appeal for help in stemming the violence in the region.

He credited Sharon with dismantling some West Bank settlement outposts and taking other steps to implement the peace proposal, and said the United States understands there are limits to what Abbas can do to rein in terrorist groups and stanch revived violence.

"We want him to use that limited capability as effectively as he can," Powell said. "We want to build up his capability so he can do more. But he has to move faster. I expect him to be taking more aggressive steps. But he does have political problems."

Powell plans to meet in Jordan later this month with leaders of Russia, the European Union and the United Nations on their joint effort to promote peacemaking. The informal group, known as the Quartet, called for an end to 33 months of conflict, establishing a Palestinian state by 2005 and other measures meant to settle the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jordan also was the site where President Bush reached agreement with Sharon and Abbas to proceed with the peace blueprint prepared jointly by the Quartet. The current burst of violence has not harmed that blueprint, Powell said.

"All of us can get together and apply pressure on Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other organizations responsible for this kind of terror," he said. "It is important for every leader interested in peace to convey the same message to them."

On other issues, Powell said:

-- He takes North Korea at its word that it has developed nuclear weapons but "we will not be frightened into taking action that would not be appropriate." The Bush administration seeks a diplomatic solution "and we feel confident that one can be found."

-- Russia, which the administration accuses of providing Iran with advanced technology for a nuclear reactor, appears to share U.S. concerns that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

After the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) makes its assessment next week "we will make an assessment, consult with our friends who have an interest in this matter and then see what our next steps should be," Powell said.