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CIA in the dock over false Iraq charge

Entebbe, July 11 (Reuters): The White House pointed the finger at the CIA today over a false accusation that Iraq tried to buy African uranium.

President George W. Bush said his charge that Iraq tried to buy nuclear material from Africa was approved by his “intelligence services”, and US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the specific wording was approved by the CIA. But Rice said the White House “absolutely” had confidence in CIA director George Tenet, saying he had served “very well”.

The White House acknowledged this week it had been a mistake to say Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been trying to get African uranium because documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger proved to have been forged.

Bush repeated he had been right to go to war against Saddam, but declined to answer a reporter’s question as to how the erroneous statement made it into his State of the Union address in January.

“I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services,” Bush said in Uganda, where he was meeting President Yoweri Museveni as part of a five-nation African tour.

“It speaks in detail to the American people of the dangers posed by the Saddam Hussein regime. My government took the appropriate response to those dangers,” he said.

Reflecting an attempt by the White House to defend Bush against criticism that he misled the public, Rice earlier held a lengthy session with reporters on the uranium issue, saying the CIA approved the address in advance.

“The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety... If the CIA director of central intelligence had said: ‘Take this out of the speech’, then it would have been done,” Rice told reporters flying to Uganda from South Africa on Air Force One with Bush.

Critics have accused the Bush administration of a campaign to mislead the public by hyping a weapons of mass destruction threat posed by Iraq.

US television network CBS reported yesterday the White House had ignored a request by the CIA to remove the accusation from Bush’s address.

But Rice said the specific reference to African uranium had been scrutinised by the CIA.

“There was even some discussion on that specific sentence, so that it reflected better what the CIA thought and the speech was cleared,” Rice said.

“Some specifics about amount and place were taken out...with the change in that sentence, the speech was cleared.”

Rice said Tenet had been a “terrific director of central intelligence”.

“I am really not blaming anybody,” she said.

Rice said although Bush’s statement about the uranium had cited British intelligence, the “underlying intelligence” for the British document was in the official US National Intelligence Estimate.

Soldiers wounded

Three US soldiers and three Iraqis were wounded as assailants targeted US forces in Iraq with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, military officers said today.

US forces in Iraq are facing between 10 and 25 attacks every day, according to the general who led the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

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