US 'has solid evidence of Iraqi arms programmes'

US officials in Iraq have solid evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes and details probably will be released soon, two leading Senate Republicans said today after returning from the country.

US officials in Iraq have solid evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes and details probably will be released soon, two leading Senate Republicans said today after returning from the country.

But Democrats on the same trip said the evidence wasn’t definitive. They said the Republicans were trying to shift the focus from proving that Saddam Hussein had weapons to proving he was developing them.

“That was not the basis on which the nation went to war,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The lingering difference over Iraq’s weapons programmes was the only public partisan dispute among the nine-member delegation led by Sen. John Warner, a Republican and the Armed Services Committee chairman. The delegation included members of his panel and the Intelligence Committee leaders. The senators spent three days in Iraq.

Warner and other senators at a news conference stressed the need for a long-term commitment to rebuild Iraq and bring stability to the country. They also emphasised a need to capture Saddam or prove he is dead. While doubts remain about Saddam’s fate, many Iraqis will be reluctant to co-operate with Americans, fearing he will return, Warner said.

Warner said he doesn’t believe Saddam is behind attacks against US soldiers.

“This guy is not, to the best of all those who have facts, trying to co-ordinate any of these attacks,” Warner said. “This guy is slinking around, each day hiding and running, some say in a crude disguise, some say manifesting the effects of having been wounded. We’ll get him.”

US officials announced a 25 million dollar reward today for information leading to the capture of Saddam or confirmation of his death.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “It is important to do everything we can to determine his whereabouts, whether he is alive or dead, in order to assist in stabilising the situation and letting the people of Baghdad be absolutely sure that he’s not coming back.”

On the search for weapons of mass destruction, Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Republican, said “it’s going to take additional time to uncover Saddam’s weapons programs.” He stressed that he was not talking about “the finished product, but the programme.”

But he said there have been “breakthrough pieces of information” and he believed ”there’s going to be breaking, positive news on that front in a very near term.”

Later, in a separate news conference, Roberts said he was urging the Bush administration to make some of the information public.

Warner said that from highly classified information provided to the senators “any fair-minded, objective individual ... will clearly come to the conclusion that these weapons did exist, that they were in the hands of those who could use them, and thank God they weren’t used.”

But the top Democrat on Armed Services, Sen. Carl Levin, said the information was “cautiously presented and with the urging that there not be a conclusion drawn.” He described it as evidence “relative to a programme that could have been constituted or reconstituted with some speed.”

Captain Jeff Fitzgibbons, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said weapons search teams had turned up a few suspicious finds over the past 10 days and had called for an investigative team with a mobile laboratory truck to test the samples. But he said he had no knowledge of a recent discovery that would provide hard evidence of a hidden weapons programme.

“We had a couple incidents people are investigating to see if it’s anything or not. As soon as they have anything that’s even close to a smoking gun, they’ll come out with it,” Fitzgibbons said.

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