updated 1/23/2004 3:37:46 PM ET 2004-01-23T20:37:46

The top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq is stepping down and will be succeeded by a veteran of weapons inspections during President Saddam Hussein’s regime, CIA Director George Tenet announced Friday.

David Kay, who has led the search since the fall of Saddam’s regime, is “stepping down,” according to a CIA statement. He will be replaced by Charles Duelfer.

“David is a model private citizen who willingly lent his unique expertise to his government in a time of need,” Tenet said in a statement. “At a time when our WMD [weapons of mass destruction] hunt efforts were just beginning, David provided a critical strategic framework that enabled the ISG [Iraq Survey Group] to focus the hunt for information on Saddam’s WMD programs.”

The group has been stymied for months in its search for clear evidence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, one of the Bush administration’s main justifications for the invasion.

Duelfer was deputy executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq from 1993 to 2000, making him the No. 2 U.N. weapons inspector there at the time. The commission is responsible for eliminating weapons of mass destruction and ensuring that Saddam did not resume production of banned weapons after the 1991 Gulf War.

With that experience, Duelfer has significant connections, including relationships with Iraqis and members of the Iraq Survey Group.

Tenet met with Kay as recently as last week, congressional aides said. The two men discussed the strategy for the weapons search and Kay’s views on other subjects.

“Building on the framework that David has put in place, I am very confident that Charlie and the ISG will continue to make progress in the months ahead in determining the status of the former Iraqi regime’s WMD programs,” Tenet said.

Duelfer has expressed skepticism that the survey group will find weapons of mass destruction. In a column first published by The Washington Post in October, Duelfer said Saddam had long differentiated between actually retaining weapons and maintaining a capability to produce them quickly.

Still, the absence of weapons stocks “does not mean Saddam did not pose a WMD threat,” Duelfer wrote.

“But clearly this is not the immediate threat many assumed before the war,” he also said. “The WMD threat appears to have been longer term. Assuming this finding does not change, it will be very important for the Iraq Survey Group to establish when all agents and weapons were eliminated.”

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