WASHINGTON - David Kay stepped down as leader of the U.S. hunt for banned weapons in Iraq on Friday and said he did not believe the country had any large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.
In a direct challenge to the Bush administration, which says its invasion of Iraq was justified by the presence of illicit arms, Kay told Reuters in a telephone interview he had concluded there were no Iraqi stockpiles to be found.
"I don't think they existed," Kay said. "What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last (1991) Gulf War, and I don't think there was a large-scale production program in the nineties," he said.
The CIA announced earlier that former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, who has previously expressed doubts that unconventional weapons would be found, would succeed Kay as Washington's chief arms hunter.
David Kay, who stepped down as leader of the U.S. hunt for weapons of mass destruction, said on January 23, 2004 that he does not believe there were any large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. 'I don't think they existed,' Kay told Reuters in a telephone interview. Kay is seen in Washington in this October 3 file photo. Photo by William Philpott/Reuters
Kay said he believes most of what was going to be found in the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been found and that the hunt would become more difficult once America returned control of the country to the Iraqis.
The United States went to war against Baghdad last year citing a threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. To date, no banned arms have been found.
In his annual State of the Union on Tuesday, President Bush insisted that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had actively pursued dangerous programs right up to the start of the U.S. attack in March.
Citing a report to Congress in October, Bush said Kay had found "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations."
"Had we failed to act," Bush said, "the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."
JURY STILL OUT
And on Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States had not given up on finding unconventional weapons in Iraq. "The jury is still out," he said in a radio interview.
Kay said he left the post due to a "complex set of issues. It related in part to a reduction in the resource and a change in focus of ISG," he said referring to the Iraq Survey Group, which is in charge of the weapons hunt.
ISG analysts were diverted from hunting for weapons of mass destruction to helping in the fight against the insurgency, Kay said.
"When I had started out I had made it a condition that ISG be exclusively focused on WMD, that's no longer so," he said.
"We're not going to find much after June. Once the Iraqis take complete control of the government it is just almost impossible to operate in the way that we operate," Kay said.
"I think we have found probably 85 percent of what we're going to find," he said. "I think the best evidence is that they did not resume large-scale production and that's what we're really talking about."
Kay said he was going back to the private sector.
In a statement announcing Kay's departure, CIA Director George Tenet praised Kay for his "extraordinary service under dangerous and difficult circumstances."
Duelfer, 51, a former deputy executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission that was responsible for dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, had previously expressed doubts that unconventional weapons would be found.
"I think that Mr. Kay and his team have looked very hard. I think the reason that they haven't found them is they're probably not there," Duelfer told NBC television earlier this month.
But in a statement included in the CIA announcement, Duelfer, who will be based in Iraq and as CIA special adviser to direct the WMD search, said he was keeping an open mind.
"I'm approaching it with an open mind and am absolutely committed to following the evidence wherever it takes us," he said.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd