WASHINGTON - David Kay, who led the U.S. effort to find banned weapons in Iraq, said yesterday after stepping down from his post that he has concluded that Iraq had no stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons at the start of the war last year.
In an interview with Reuters, Kay said he thought that Iraq had illicit weapons at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war but that the subsequent combination of U.N. inspections and Iraq's own decisions "got rid of them."
Asked directly if he was saying that Iraq did not have large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the country, Kay replied, according to a transcript of the taped interview made public by Reuters, "That is correct."
Kay did not respond to telephone calls and e-mail messages from The New York Times or other media outlets.
Kay's statements undermined one of the primary justifications set out by President Bush for the war with Iraq. Bush and other top administration officials repeatedly mentioned Iraq's possession of chemical and biological weapons as a threat to the United States, and the lack of evidence that Saddam Hussein had large caches of weapons has fueled criticism that Bush exaggerated the peril from Iraq.
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the administration stood by its previous assessments that Hussein had weapons programs and stores of banned weapons.
"Yes, we believe he had them, and yes we believe they will be found," McClellan said. "We believe the truth will come out."
The assessment Kay provided to Reuters yesterday was far more conclusive about Iraq's weapons programs than the report he delivered to the White House and Congress in October. At that time, he said he and his team "have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war, and our only task is to find where they have gone."
But he also reported in October that his team had uncovered evidence of "dozens of WMD-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed ... during the inspections that began in late 2002."
With Kay's departure, the administration handed over the weapons search yesterday to Charles A. Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who has expressed skepticism that the United States and its allies would find any banned chemicals or biological agents.
Kay's comments and the appointment of Duelfer, made by central intelligence director George J. Tenet, appeared to be a turning point in the administration's defense of its assertions that Hussein had amassed stores of weapons that he could use or turn over to terrorists.
Although the White House stood by its statements last year that Hussein possessed stores of banned weapons, a position reiterated on Thursday by Vice President Dick Cheney, other administration officials said yesterday that the prospects that the search would turn up caches of chemical or biological weapons were much diminished.
Kay told Reuters that one of the reasons he left was that the team he headed, the Iraq Survey Group, had been diverted to some degree for use in battling the insurgency in Iraq. That diversion, he said, left him short of the resources needed to complete the job by the end of June, when the United States plans to return sovereignty to the Iraqis.
He and his team were "not going to find much after June," Kay said. "I think we have found probably 85 percent of what we're going to find."