This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series
As the year 2003 began and the United States prepared to go to war with Iraq, the Bush Administration's main concern was Saddam Hussein's refusal to give up his weapons of mass destruction. But after months of searching, those weapons have not been found. As the world heads into 2004, the controversy over whether those weapons posed the grave threat that the United States and Britain said they did, still remains one of the most contentious, and unresolved, issues about the Iraq war.
The year 2004 will arrive with the war in Iraq entering its 10th month. Saddam Hussein, who had been on the run since the fall of Baghdad in April, has been found and captured. But not found so far are any of the hundreds of tons of lethal chemical and biological agents the United States and its war ally Britain told the world were in Saddam Hussein's arsenal.
Speaking at the United Nations in February, a month before the U.S.-led invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell put the U.S. case this way. "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more, and he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction," he said.
But when President Bush spoke at the United Nations seven months later, that theme had shifted. "Across the Middle East, people are safer because an unstable aggressor has been removed from power. Across the world, nations are more secure because an ally of terror has fallen," he said.
Amid reports that the search for Iraq's banned weapons is winding down, the administration is focussing on building a democratic country from the dictatorship that was Saddam Hussein's and how this is part of the war on terror that began with the terrorist attacks on the United States two years ago.
"The war on terror is being fought on many fronts," he said. Iraq is a visible front. It's very important for people to put this Iraq in a broader context about a war that will continue on."
Critics however, spent much of 2003 charging the administration's shift away from talking about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction only underscored their argument that the United States and Britain overstated the Iraqi weapons threat before the war. Daryl Kimball is with the Arms Control Association.
"It is now clear that Iraq was not an immediate threat to the United States that the Bush administration portrayed," he said. "We along with an increasing number of others believe that the administration made its case for going to war by misrepresenting intelligence findings and well as citing discredited intelligence information."
Some 130,000 American troops now patrol Iraq, with the cost of stabilizing and rebuilding the country continuing to climb both in dollars and lives. More than 460 American soldiers have been killed since the war began in March. American University history professor Alan Lichtman believes these costs could start to weigh on the minds of voters when they go to the polls to elect a president next November if current trends in Iraq continue.
"We're in Iraq. We've taken responsibility for Iraq. We've overturned the government and we are going to rebuild the country and do our best to establish a stable democracy regardless of what terrorists might do," he said. "Some would say, of course, this is a noble and just and proper commitment. Others would say it is the beginning of the descent into the quagmire in Iraq."
But a public opinion poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News in the days since Saddam's capture suggests more Americans, some 60 percent of those asked, say they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war.