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Iraq Intelligence Controversy Could Have Serious Political Fallout in US, Britain - 2003-07-19


President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood together in Washington this week, and offered a spirited defense of their decision to go to war in Iraq. But questions continue to dog both men about some of the pre-war intelligence used to justify the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

At a joint news conference, both men seized the opportunity to defend their decision to use military force.

For President Bush, it was also a chance to defend the intelligence information used to make the case that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.

"We based our decisions on good, sound intelligence, and our people are going to find out the truth, and the truth will say that this intelligence was good intelligence," he stressed. "There is no doubt in my mind."

The debate over pre-war intelligence has reached a fever pitch in Washington. White House officials acknowledge that they should not have included a reference that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa in the president's State of the Union Address in January.

The CIA says it was not able to verify that claim, which was based on British intelligence. Prime Minister Blair stood by the uranium assertion during his joint news conference with President Bush.

"The British intelligence that we have, we believe is genuine," he said. "We stand by that intelligence."

On Friday, the White House made public excerpts of an intelligence assessment done last year that cited what was described as "compelling evidence" that Saddam Hussein was trying to reconstitute a nuclear-weapons program. The report said that Iraq would probably have a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade, if left unchecked.

Release of the White House documents was designed to blunt a growing controversy in Washington sparked by Democrats in Congress. They want to know how the uranium reference made its way into the State of the Union Address, even though the CIA had managed to keep it out of an earlier presidential speech last October.

"So long as it is unresolved, there will be a shadow over the intelligence gathering and use in this administration," said Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "That is not in the best interest of national security. It is not in the best interests of the people of the United States."

Democrats in Congress and those running for president have seized on the intelligence issue. They question whether the president misled the public with faulty intelligence to build support for war.

"It is a very serious controversy," said Larry Sabato, a political expert at the University of Virginia. "It goes to the very heart of credibility, which has always been a strong suit for George Bush, but may no longer be. So, I think it could not be a more serious matter for him, and he has to resolve it."

Other analysts say the White House could have done a better job in handling the controversy.

"It is the only real chink in the president's armor on a foreign policy issue, and the Democrats grabbed it," pointed out Tom Defrank, Washington bureau chief for The New York Daily News, a guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

Analysts also warn that continuing U-S casualties in Iraq could weaken the public's confidence in the president's foreign policy.

"What is making it more difficult for Bush is that this is occurring at the very same time as there are almost daily killings of American troops in Iraq," said Larry Sabato. "We are seeing a guerilla war develop akin to Vietnam in Iraq, and that is causing Americans to be very nervous indeed about what we are doing over there."

But Larry Sabato also added that the president's political fortunes could improve in a hurry, depending on developments in Iraq.

"Saddam Hussein could be captured; Saddam's sons could be captured; the ground troops in Iraq may be able to turn around the very dangerous circumstances that we see today. And, at that point, the issue probably would fade away," he said.

Some analysts question whether the Democrats will ever be able to dent the president's advantage on national security issues, given the public's overwhelming support for his handling of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"I guess, I still think that, as a general proposition, attacking President Bush on issues of national security is a loser, because I think people rally around the president in times like this," said Tom Defrank of The New York Daily News. "I think the American people, by and large, support his decision to go into Iraq. So, whether they think some games were played with this piece of intelligence information, or not, I guess I don't think that fundamentally alters the U.S. perception of Bush and his leadership on this issue."

A new public opinion poll by Zogby International has the president's overall approval rating at 53 percent. That is down five points from a month ago. Other recent surveys also indicate growing public unease over the situation in Iraq and the questions about pre-war intelligence.

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