Democrats in Congress are pressing for a public inquiry into whether the Bush administration exaggerated Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program in order to justify the war that removed Saddam Hussein from power. The demands for public hearings come in the wake of a White House admission earlier this week that the president inadvertently included false information in his State of the Union speech in January, alleging that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa.
On Monday, the White House issued a statement that said President Bush's allegation in his January State of the Union Address that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Niger was based on what turned out to be a forged document.
The rare administration retraction on Iraq has prompted several leading Democrats to call for a wider congressional inquiry into the way in which the Bush administration used intelligence data on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify an invasion.
"It is a recognition that we were provided faulty information and I think it is all the more reason why a full investigation of all of the facts surrounding this situation be undertaken," said Senate Democratic Leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
The issue also came up at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday. Democrats wanted to know why it took so long for the Bush administration to acknowledge the uranium report was false.
"Have you determined how it happened that that information about the forgery [about the uranium claim] stayed for so long in the, to quote [National Security Adviser] Condi Rice, 'the bowels of the agency,'" asked Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.
"No, I can't give you a good answer," said Secretary Rumsfeld. "I can try to get an answer for the record, if you like. The fact that facts change from time to time, with respect to specifics, does not surprise me or shock me at all."
Mr. Rumsfeld added that he thought the intelligence on Iraq before the war was generally very good.
The issue has followed President Bush on his trip to Africa. The president told reporters in South Africa that he remains absolutely confident about his decision to invade Iraq despite the faulty claim on uranium, which was based on British intelligence.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace," said President Bush. " And there is no doubt in my mind that the United States along with allies and friends did the right thing in removing him from power."
The president cited the mass weapons threat from Iraq as one of the main justifications for toppling Saddam in the months leading up to the war.
Congressional Republicans say the Democrats are playing up one small flaw in the intelligence dossier on Iraq.
Political analysts are divided over whether the lack of proof of an Iraqi mass weapons program will hurt the president as he prepares for his re-election campaign next year.
Clifford May, a former Republican Party spokesman who now heads a private advocacy group that supports the war on terrorism, says the American public made up its mind long ago that getting rid of the Saddam regime was a good thing.
"I think the perception of the American public was never based on whether yellow cake [nuclear materials] had been imported from Niamey to Baghdad," he said. "It was on their perception that Saddam Hussein represented a threat to the United States, was a terrible butcher, something had to be done about this gangster who was heading an important country in the Middle East, and something was done."
Somewhat surprisingly, some Democratic political strategists agree with that assessment. Al Quinlan, a political consultant who has worked for several leading Democrats, says the public is paying more attention to the U.S. attempts to rebuild Iraq in the wake of Saddam's removal.
"So I think the question is not whether weapons of mass destruction are found, it is whether the rebuilding of Iraq is a successful venture and we don't continue to have the stories we have had over the last month," he said.
That view is echoed by independent political analyst Charles Cook. He says the president should be more concerned with how the public reacts to the continuing attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and how long those attacks continue.
"I don't think that not finding WMD's [weapons of mass destruction] is going to be a huge problem for the president," Mr. Cook said. "We haven't seen any erosion in support for the war, but we have seen an erosion in people's assessment of how it is going and, at some point, you could really see that [support] start to come down."
Charles Cook and other analysts note that the weapons of mass destruction issue is playing out differently in the United States than it is in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair may have a more difficult time fending off his critics in Parliament.