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Bush Moves to End Controversy Over Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program

The issue of Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program has not gone away.

President Bush has moved to end what had been several weeks of finger pointing among administration officials by saying he now takes the responsibility for a statement he made in January, that Iraq tried to acquire uranium in Africa. It was a claim administration officials later said they knew was based on less than solid intelligence.

"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, absolutely," the president said.

Democratic presidential candidates say this gives them a glimmer of hope as they pondered whether the president is more vulnerable in his bid for re-election in the wake of his admission about Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions.

Among the Democratic candidates is Florida Senator Bob Graham who wants to know why it took the president more than three weeks to "take personal responsibility" for flawed intelligence on Iraq - one of many claims he says are threatening to damage the U.S. government's credibility.

"If we do not find weapons of mass destruction, the credibility of the United States government abroad and the credibility of the United States government with its own people here in the United States will be significantly eroded," senator Graham said.

Fellow Democrat and presidential candidate Joe Lieberman supported the Iraq war but is becoming increasingly skeptical and outspoken about the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein's weapons were a threat.

"And right now the president's conduct of our foreign policy is giving the country too many reasons to question his leadership," said senator Lieberman. "It is not just about 16 words in a speech, it is about distorting intelligence and diminishing credibility."

It's been a full three months now since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq and so far no solid evidence has been found to back up his claim that Baghdad had hundreds of tons of banned chemical and biological material.

It's an issue the president acknowledges he needs to address.

"We need to produce evidence and I fully understand that. And I'm confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe: that Saddam had a weapons program," Mr. Bush said.

But Morton Kondracke, executive editor of Capitol Hill's Roll Call newspaper, thinks the press is more interested than the American public in the controversy over whether the president overstated the Iraqi weapons threat. What will be much more important to voters, he believes, is what happens in Iraq between now and election day next year.

"I think that by election day this whole issue of Niger-uranium is going to go away. I think what really counts is what happens in Iraq," he said. " If our troops keep getting killed, then it's an issue. I just think the public is not focused on this uranium issue. I don't think it gives the Democrats any ammunition." In fact, a group within the Democratic party which has helped steer it away from its more liberal leanings, is now warning some of the current crop of presidential hopefuls they may be pushing the party toward defeat in next year's presidential race if they continue campaigning against the war in Iraq, which a new Gallup poll finds most Americans continue to believe was the right course of action.