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Friday, June 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Report sparks debate over Iraq arsenal

WASHINGTON — A partially declassified intelligence report provides no new evidence that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday.

The report, publicized by two Republican legislators in the midst of a Senate debate on the Iraq war, says that about 500 weapons containing degraded mustard gas and sarin nerve agent have been found in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

President Bush, in making the case for war, alleged that Iraq continued to develop and stockpile weapons of mass destruction. But the intelligence officials said the munitions found since the invasion dated from before the 1991 Persian Gulf War and for the most part were badly deteriorated. "They are not in a condition where they could be used as designed," one intelligence official said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive intelligence data involved, said the old munitions had been found in groups of one and two, indicating that they had been discarded, not that they were part of an organized program to stockpile banned weapons.

"There is not new news from the coalition point of view," one official said, noting that chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer predicted in a March 2005 report that such vintage weapons would continue to be found.

The report was completed in April by the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center. The officials said the study was conducted to analyze hazards to troops by the aging chemical munitions as they were found in small caches.

The findings were seized on by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a strong war supporter who is trailing his Democratic opponent in his re-election bid. The two said the study was proof that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The intelligence officials suggested that they were pressured by Hoekstra into declassifying the study in recent weeks.

Hoekstra said people had been saying there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and "while news there were 500 might not be much of a surprise to some, revelation of the number may be news to others."

"It was one more piece of the puzzle ... and who knows what else may be in Iraq," he said. "There is still a lot we don't know."

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Santorum didn't return calls requesting comment Thursday.

Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, charged Thursday that Republicans' release of the report was a last-ditch effort to justify the war.

"Rolling out some old fairly toxic stuff sounds to me like a desperate claim by those who wish that we could find some new way to rationalize the ongoing devastation in Iraq," she said.

One of the declassified key points says the munitions — apparently dating from Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran — could be sold on the black market.

But one intelligence official said there was "no evidence that any element of the insurgency in Iraq is in possession of these kinds of munitions."

Duelfer's report said that, while the old munitions might be effective as terrorist weapons, they didn't pose a "militarily significant threat" and couldn't cause mass casualties.

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