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Powell Defends Iraq Weapons Intelligence

Filed at 12:11 p.m. ET

ROME (AP) -- Secretary of State Colin Powell defended U.S. intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction Monday, saying he was convinced by "overwhelming" evidence that they existed, even though none have yet been found.

In some of his most extensive comments on the issue, Powell tried to dismiss reports suggesting U.S. intelligence was flawed or overstated to justify the war. He insisted there was no point in getting "trapped in the long-winded debate about what was known and not known" about Iraq's weapons programs before the war.

"There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It wasn't a figment of anyone's imagination," Powell said, citing Baghdad's use of the weapons in the war against Iran and against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, and the discovery of such weapons after the 1991 Gulf War.

"So there is no question, there is no debate that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction," he told a press conference after meeting with his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini. He said the United States was putting in place the "most extensive regime imaginable" of weapons experts to locate them.

The Bush administration justified the war in part by insisting that Saddam Hussein's regime continued to possess and develop weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions that ended the Gulf War. Iraq insisted it had eliminated its weapons programs.

No weapons have yet been found, and recent news reports questioned the sources of some of the intelligence Powell cited in his Feb. 5 presentation to the U.N. Security Council justifying Washington's hard line against Baghdad.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America's staunchest ally in the war, has similarly been attacked by critics who claim he duped the public about the threat of Iraqi weapons with flawed intelligence to win support for the war.

At the G-8 summit in France on Monday, Blair rejected charges that his government doctored weapons evidence.

Powell said the Security Council had implicitly agreed that Iraq possessed banned weapons when it approved Resolution 1441 last year -- "a resolution that started out with the proposition that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction."

"There was no doubt in my mind as I went through the intelligence, and as I prepared myself for the briefing that I gave to the Security Council on the 5th of February, that the evidence was overwhelming, that they had continued to develop" weapons programs, Powell said.

He said that the war was "perfectly appropriate" because Iraq had continued to violate the will of the international community by thwarting U.N. weapons inspections and failing to fully account for its weapons.

He said the recent discovery of what U.S. officials say are mobile biological weapons labs was evidence that the intelligence was correct.

"There is no question in our minds that that's what their purpose was," Powell said. "Nobody has come up with an alternate purpose that makes sense."