The failure so far of U.S. troops to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been a source of frustration for the Bush administration. Now, opposition Democrats sense the issue could have a domestic political impact.
Congressional Democrats and some of those running for president see a political opportunity in the unfolding mystery about the whereabouts of mass weapons in Iraq.
Florida Senator Bob Graham recently served on the Senate Intelligence Committee and is one of nine Democrats running for president. He opposed the war in Iraq on the grounds that it would detract from the war on terrorism.
Senator Graham is among a growing number of Democrats who want an aggressive inquiry into whether the Bush administration exaggerated intelligence estimates on Iraq's mass weapons program. "We hope that we will find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he said. "Failing to do that, there will be a serious question as to the credibility of the United States in the world."
Congressional Republicans have vowed to review the issue of intelligence on Iraq in closed-door hearings beginning later this month. But Democrats like Senator Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, want a more comprehensive probe including public hearings.
"We haven't found any weapons of mass destruction," he said on NBC's Today program. "The al-Qaida-Iraq connection has not been found to be very real. And so, we need to have a very thorough investigation into what happened that caused the president to go ahead and proceed with a war."
Though frustrated by the weapons search in Iraq so far, President Bush stands by his contention that evidence of a weapons program will be found. He also rejects the Democrat's contention that his administration's credibility is now at stake.
"I am absolutely convinced that with time we will find out that they did have a weapons program," he said. "And the credibility of this country is based upon a strong desire to make the world more peaceful and the world is now more peaceful after our decision [to go to war in Iraq]."
The senior allied military commander in Iraq, U.S. Army Lt. General David McKiernan, said coalition soldiers are continuing to gather intelligence from Iraqis that he hopes will produce leads on the weapons program.
"It would be premature for me to tell you exactly what leads are coming from interrogations of those who might have been involved with these programs," said General McKiernan. "But as I've said repeatedly, I think we have a ways to go and it will take some time to uncover WMD in a country that has spent years and years and years perfecting their techniques of hiding it."
Congressional Republicans also counter that the Democrats are merely trying to exploit the issue for political gain in advance of next year's presidential election.
"In my view, some of the attacks have been simply politics and for political gain," commented the Republican Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts of Kansas. "I will not allow the [Senate Intelligence] committee to be politicized or to be used as an unwitting tool for any political strategist."
But at least one Republican agrees with Democrats that public hearings on the justification for going to war in Iraq would be helpful.
"Let us move forward, have those hearings and have the American people in on it," proposed Senator John McCain of Arizona, who also spoke on NBC's "Today" program. "I am confident that we will be able to make the case for the conflict in Iraq."
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the Democrats may have a hard time getting most Americans to care about the issue.
Professor Sabato also says the Democrats are taking a political risk by challenging President Bush on his foreign policy and national security record.
"President Bush is not going to give up the national security card, nor should he politically," he said. "It is the best card [advantage] any incumbent president, especially a Republican incumbent president, could have. If he wins a second term in 2004, it is probably going to be because of the national security card."
Public opinion polls indicate most Americans will be generally happy with the outcome in Iraq even if weapons of mass destruction are never found. A recent Pew Research poll found that 58 percent of those surveyed believed the war in Iraq was justifiable without finding mass weapons.