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US General: Pre-War Iraq Intelligence Not Manipulated - 2003-07-16

The new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq is defending the quality of intelligence the military received before the latest Gulf war, but there is still disagreement about how that intelligence might have been used by politicians.

General John Abizaid says he does not believe the intelligence gathered on Baghdad's nuclear program was misleading. "I don't believe professionally that any of the intelligence I saw was exaggerated, hyped or otherwise manipulated," he said.

But the new commander of the U.S. Central Command declines to say whether political leaders within the Bush administration may have exaggerated the threat posed by Baghdad's purported efforts to obtain uranium from Niger and other African countries.

The General met reporters at the Pentagon as an official of the Defense Intelligence Agency told VOA that all the information on Iraq's alleged efforts to purchase African uranium came from what he characterizes as suspect foreign sources.

The official, speaking condition on condition of anonymity, says that is one of the main reasons why intelligence specialists "were shying away from" that claim.

He also says intelligence officials were concerned there were no other indicators to support the notion of a fresh Iraqi uranium deal with Niger in particular, that is, no evidence of any transaction taking place or money changing hands or other clues.

President Bush has come under fire for including a reference to Iraq's efforts to obtain uranium from Africa in his State of the Union address in January, before the war with Iraq.

The White House now admits the information was wrong and should not have been included in the speech. Central Intelligence Director George Tenet has accepted responsibility for the mistake.

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is still signaling his belief that the intelligence might be accurate.

Last Sunday, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters British authorities who first publicized the claim, still believe it is accurate and he added "that may very well be the case."

Some of the intelligence about Iraq's efforts to procure uranium from Niger was based on what eventually turned out to be fabricated documents.

But even before the forgery was unmasked, a classified intelligence assessment was circulated within the Bush administration last October - well before the State of the Union address. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the document stated clearly U.S. officials could not verify foreign allegations of a possible sale by Niger to Iraq. It also said intelligence officials could not confirm reports Iraq sought uranium from other African countries. The classified assessment included a sentence stating that claims of Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa were "highly dubious."