TBLISI, Georgia – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) held out the possibility Saturday that prewar Iraq may not have possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Powell was asked about comments last week by David Kay (search), the outgoing leader of a U.S. weapons search team in Iraq, that he did not believe Iraq had large quantities of chemical or biological weapons.
"The answer to that question is, we don't know yet," Powell told reporters as he traveled to this former Soviet republic to attend the inauguration Sunday of President-elect Mikhail Saakashvili (search).
Powell acknowledged that the United States thought deposed leader Saddam Hussein (search) had banned weapons but added, "We had questions that needed to be answered.
"What was it?" he asked. "One hundred tons, 500 tons or zero tons? Was it so many liters of anthrax, 10 times that amount or nothing?"
A senior Bush administration official said Saturday from Davos, Switzerland, where Vice President Dick Cheney (search) was addressing political and business leaders, that only time will tell about the accuracy of prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs.
"We won't know until we've gotten through the process of interviewing all the people who were involved in those programs and an opportunity to inspect all the sites — until we've completed the efforts that Kay started and that somebody else now will have to finish," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Sunday Telegraph in London reported that Kay said elements of Saddam's weapons program was sent to Syria.
"We are not talking about a large stockpile of weapons but we know from some of the interrogations of former Iraqi officials that a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) program," the paper quoted Kay as saying. "Precisely what went to Syria, and what has happened to it, is a major issue that needs to be resolved."
Kay told reporters in Washington in October that "senior Iraqi officials, both military and scientific," had moved to Jordan and Syria, "both pre-conflict and some during the conflict, and some immediately after the conflict." Other U.S. officials, including the head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, also have suggested Iraqis moved evidence of weapons of mass destruction to Syria and perhaps other countries.
Almost a year has passed since Powell's speech before the U.N. Security Council in which he accused Iraq of violating a U.N. weapons ban imposed after Iraq invade Kuwait more than a decade ago.
Since then, the administration has been less categorical on the issue, contending that Saddam was actively pursuing banned weapons. The administration generally has avoided the issue of actual possession despite having spent at least $900 million in the weapons search.
President Bush, in his State of the Union address last week, cited an interim report by Kay in October in which the inspector claimed to have found dozens of weapons-related programs and equipment in Iraq.
"Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day," the president said.
On Saturday, Bush's spokesman said the administration stood by its assertions that Iraq had banned weapons at the time of the U.S.-led war. Scott McClellan said it was only a matter of time before inspectors uncover their location.
"The Iraq Survey Group's work is ongoing, and it is important that they complete their work," McClellan said. "The truth will come out, but we already know that Saddam Hussein's regime was given one final opportunity to comply or face serious consequences, and he chose to continue to be in clear violation of his international obligations."
In an interview published Sunday, but conducted before the announcement late Friday that Kay was stepping down, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he still believed the intelligence received by his government before the war was correct.
"It is absurd to say in respect of any intelligence that it is infallible, but if you ask me what I believe, I believe the intelligence was correct, and I think in the end we will have an explanation," he was quoted as saying in The Observer newspaper.
Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, whose signature campaign issue has been his opposition to the Iraq war, said that Kay's comments further undermine Bush's claims that Iraq under Saddam posed a threat to the United States.
Last week, Vice President Cheney told National Public Radio that the administration had not given up on the search for weapons. The "jury is still out," he said.
In his speech Saturday, Cheney urged "civilized people" to do "everything in our power to defeat terrorism and to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
Taking over for Kay as head of the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group of roughly 1,400 scientists and other experts is Charles Duelfer, the No. 2 weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq for much of the 1990s. The team is going through documents, searching facilities and interviewing Iraqis to determine the weapons capabilities of the fallen Iraqi government.
While the emphasis was on weapons of mass destruction as the reason to wage war on Iraq, the administration also suggested that Saddam was linked with the al-Qaida organization. Like the weapons, no firm evidence of a solid link has been produced.
On Saturday, a U.S. official in Washington said Kurdish forces had captured a senior al-Qaida figure as he tried to enter northern Iraq.
Hassan Ghul, a senior facilitator in Osama bin Laden's terror network, was turned over to the United States and is being interrogated at an undisclosed location, the official said.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had no details about whether Ghul was cooperating or providing useful information.
On Friday, a senior American official reported the capture of a purported leader of anti-U.S. resistance in Iraq, Husam al-Yemeni, who officials said headed a cell of operatives in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. The official said al-Yemeni, linked to the Ansar al-Islam group in Kurdish northern Iraq, was thought to be a close associate of Abu Musab Zarqawi, described by some as a key link between the al-Qaida terrorist network and Saddam.
In recent months, U.S. forces in central Iraq have detained a handful of people suspected of having ties to al-Qaida, but American intelligence officials described them as mostly low-level operatives with unclear purposes in the country.