TBILISI, Georgia - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that there is an "open question" whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction when the United States went to war to oust Saddam Hussein last year.
Responding to a statement by just-resigned U.S. weapons inspector David Kay that Iraq had no large quantities of weapons of mass destruction, Powell appeared to ease back a bit more from previous administration statements about Iraq's weapons program.
"The answer to that question is: We don't know yet," Powell said when asked about Kay's assertion that Iraq did not possess such weapons.
Powell told reporters traveling with him that it was clear from the intelligence at the time that Iraq had the intention, the capability and actual programs to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
"What is the open question is how many stockpiles they had, if any. And if they had any, where did they go? If they didn't have any, why wasn't that known beforehand?" he said.
The belief that Iraq had a program to develop weapons of mass destruction was the main reason used by Bush administration officials for going to war against Iraq.
The Sunday Telegraph in London reported that Kay said elements of Hussein's weapons program were 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, have also suggested that Iraqis moved evidence of weapons of mass destruction to Syria and perhaps other countries.
Powell said Iraq stonewalled the United States and the international community on the weapons question for years in hopes of escaping from United Nations sanctions. Yet by refusing to account for suspected weapons, he said, "they proved the negative of our hypothesis."
He said President Bush and U.S. allies supporting the war effort weren't willing to take the risk that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction in the face of Iraq's lack of cooperation.
The secretary of state, who made a high-profile appearance last February before the United Nations accusing Iraq of violating a U.N. weapons ban, said his report was based on solid U.S. and foreign intelligence.
But he said he made clear at the time there were "a number of unanswered questions" about the extent of any weapons programs that Iraq never answered despite Baghdad's assurances that they had been banned.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.