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U.S. acknowledges Iraq intel flaws

Rice: "You're never going to be able to be positive."

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. President George W. Bush's national security adviser acknowledged on Thursday there may have been flaws in prewar intelligence about Iraq but brushed aside calls for an independent investigation into the matter.

"I think that what we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground," Condoleezza Rice told CBS.

She added, "That's not surprising in a country that was as closed and secretive as Iraq, a country that was doing everything that it could to deceive the United Nations, to deceive the world."

Bush based his decision to invade Iraq last year on what he called a "grave and gathering danger" posed by Iraq's weapons. He acted without U.N. backing, cutting short efforts by U.N. inspectors to check out the weapons reports in Iraq.

In a series of television interviews, Rice defended Bush's decision and said the United States may never learn the whole truth about Iraq's arms capabilities because of looting, which U.S. forces failed to stop immediately after the invasion.

For months, administration officials had expressed confidence banned weapons would be found.

But after the top U.S. weapons hunter concluded Iraq had no stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons, the White House said on Monday it would review prewar intelligence. On Tuesday, Bush tempered his prewar insistence that Iraq had an arsenal of banned weapons.

The weapons issue is a hot topic in campaigning for the November presidential election, with Democrats saying Bush misled the country over the level of the Iraqi threat.

Bush's main international ally over Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has come under similar pressure from political opponents but Blair drew comfort on Wednesday from an independent report rejecting a BBC claim that Blair had hyped the threat from Baghdad.

The White House acknowledged last year that it had been a mistake to accuse Iraq of trying to buy African uranium. The allegation -- included in Bush's State of the Union address -- was found to have been based partly on forged documents.

"When you are dealing with secretive regimes that want to deceive, you're never going to be able to be positive" about intelligence, Rice told NBC on Thursday.

She said the U.S. team hunting for Iraq's weapons would "gather all of the facts that we possibly can," leaving open the possibility that its findings may be inconclusive.

She blamed gaps in data on looters who sacked government offices after the invasion and on ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who she said was so secretive that "he allowed the world to continue to wonder" what weapons he still had.

Critics say the administration did little to secure sensitive sites immediately after the invasion, undercutting efforts to find the evidence of weapons.

David Kay, who had led the U.S. team hunting for Iraq's weapons, warned on Wednesday of an "unresolved ambiguity" about Saddam's weapons capabilities partly due to the looting of documents, laboratories and military bases.

He said he would support an independent investigation into the intelligence.

Rice said the Iraq Survey Group, which is continuing to search for weapons in Iraq, should complete its work and that the intelligence community had already launched its own investigation.

Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, stressed the importance of pressing on with the weapons search.

"If we did get the WMD wrong, OK, I understand that. But I can tell you that there are certain things that we got extremely right which allowed us to conduct a campaign that was pretty quick and, you know, pretty decisive in a very short period of time," he told reporters.

Rice said the administration would not change its position that Saddam had to go. "The judgment is going to be the same: This is a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world and it was time to do something about this threat," she said.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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