New Zealand Herald
3.00pm - By STEVE HOLLAND
WASHINGTON - President Bush today offered a shifting rationale for the Iraq war -- that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to develop unconventional arms if not the actual weapons.
Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was the main reason cited by Bush for the war, in which more than 500 US troops and thousands of Iraqis have died, though no such arms were found and weapons hunters say pre-war intelligence was flawed.
Bush addressed the criticism on Iraq and his handling of the US economy in an appearance on the NBC television programme "Meet the Press" as his job approval ratings continue to slide and some polls show Democratic presidential contender John Kerry could beat him in the November election.
The president defended putting off the results of a bipartisan investigation of Iraq intelligence until March 31, 2005, well after the election, and he stopped short of saying he would testify before it, saying only he would be glad to "visit with them," share knowledge and make recommendations.
Bush conceded that it was "correct" that weapons of mass destruction had not been found in Iraq but emphasised a different reason why the war was necessary.
"He had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons. The international community thought he had weapons. But he had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network," Bush said.
The failure to find the alleged weapons is turning into a credibility problem for the president. A Time/CNN poll released on Sunday said 55 per cent of Americans have "doubts and reservations" about Bush and fewer than half, 44 per cent, said he is a leader they can trust.
Bush decided on his own to make a rare appearance on the top-rated Sunday talk show in an attempt to regain the high ground of the election-year Iraq debate, aides said.
They concede Bush is going through a tough period and believe his tumbling poll numbers are in part a result of a chorus of attacks by Democratic challengers. The interview is part of an aggressive push to answer the critics.
With more than 500 Americans killed during the war and its chaotic aftermath, Bush said he did not believe they died in vain.
"Saddam Hussein was dangerous," he said.
Bush and his team had said in the run-up to the war that it was necessary to topple Saddam because he had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, was trying to build a nuclear weapon and represented a grave danger in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.
Democratic front-runner Kerry wasted no time in criticising Bush for offering a new war rationale.
With no weapons found in Iraq, the administration had previously justified the war by arguing Saddam was worth toppling because of his appalling human rights record.
In the interview, Bush was read a quote by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz who said this was not a justification for attacking Iraq. He declined to address it.
"Now the president is giving us a new reason for sending people to war, and the problem is not just that he is changing his story now, it is that it appears he was telling the American people stories in 2002," Kerry said in Richmond, Virginia.
He called on Bush to allow a "legitimate and immediate investigation into the extraordinary failure" of US intelligence or whether the Bush administration hyped the threat for political purposes.
Last Friday Bush appointed a bipartisan commission to investigate flaws in intelligence used to justify the war based on former chief weapons hunter David Kay's fruitless search.
Bush said he gave the commission until March 2005 to report back because he did not want its work to be hurried and that voters will have ample time to assess "whether or not I made the right decision" in invading Iraq.
"It's important that this investigation take its time," he said.
Bush said CIA Director George Tenet's job was not in jeopardy but he blamed the intelligence he received for his pre-war convictions that Iraq was a danger.
"I expected to find the weapons ... I based my decision on the best intelligence possible, intelligence that had been gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our analysts thought was valid but analysts from other countries thought were valid," he said.
On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the commission should fully investigate but he hoped it could finish before the election.
"It does bother me" that the commission is not slated to complete work until March 2005," he said. But, "The commission needs to conduct its study in a serious way. It shouldn't be politically motivated or politically driven. We need to get to the bottom of this ..."