OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN – Finding the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (search) that President Bush cited as his main justification for going to war is now a secondary issue, says Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (search).
In an interview Monday night aboard an Air Force jet en route to Washington following a five-day tour of Iraq, Wolfowitz said the task of settling the weapons question is in the hands of U.S. intelligence agencies.
"I'm not concerned about weapons of mass destruction," Wolfowitz told a group of reporters traveling with him. "I'm concerned about getting Iraq on its feet. I didn't come (to Iraq) on a search for weapons of mass destruction."
He also asserted that Iraqis themselves have little concern about the weapons issue.
"If you could get in a relaxed conversation with Iraqis on that subject they'd say why on earth are you Americans fussing so much about this historical issue when we have real problems here, when Baathists (search) are killing us and Baathists are threatening us and we don't have electricity and we don't have jobs. Those are the real issues.
"I'm not saying that getting to the bottom of this WMD issue isn't important. It is important. But it is not of immediate consequence."
The CIA has put David Kay, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, in charge of the search for illegal weapons.
Wolfowitz said Kay told him during a meeting Sunday that U.S. officials were having difficulty getting Iraqi prisoners to tell what they know about Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological or nuclear programs.
The Iraqi government claimed prior to the war that it had destroyed all the weapons of mass destruction it once held, and U.N. inspectors were unable to find evidence of any.
"I pushed him (Kay) a bit on why aren't these people talking. Why don't you, in effect, plea bargain with them," Wolfowitz said. "He said there is no concept of plea bargaining in this place. If you confessed you just got executed faster or tortured less."
Administration officials had hoped, and in some cases expected, to find evidence of chemical or biological weapons on the battlefield in the aftermath of the war, but so far nothing has turned up. Pentagon officials have said they believe the key is getting lower-level Iraqi officials to help.
"The people that we're holding still feel they have much more to fear from their old buddies -- still buddies -- than anything we do to them," he said. "So he (Kay) says it's going to be a painstaking process."