Backtrack by Bush over case for war on Saddam

President George Bush was forced on to the defensive over his decision to invade Iraq yesterday in a rare hour-long television interview. He acknowledged that some pre-war intelligence had been wrong, but he denied taking his country to war under false pretences.

In the interview, his first on network television since he took office, Mr Bush insisted that even if no weapons of mass destruction were found, Saddam Hussein had the capacity to produce them and could, in time, have developed a nuclear weapon.

In Britain, the pressure on Tony Blair to explain what he knew about Iraq's weaponry on the eve of war increased after Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector, likened him to a salesman trying to "exaggerate the importance of what they have". Dr Blix accused Mr Blair of trying to "dramatise" intelligence in the run-up to war. The comments reignited the controversy over claims in the Government's dossier on Iraq's arsenal that Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction "within 45 minutes".

President Bush's interview was an attempt to address the growing credibility gap over Iraq's WMD, as polls showed his approval ratings sliding. He told NBC's Meet the Press: "He [Saddam] had the capacity to have a weapon ... and we thought he had weapons. The international community thought he had weapons. But he had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network."

According to a Time/CNN survey yesterday, 55 per cent of Americans have "doubts and reservations" about Mr Bush, and only 44 per cent believe he is a leader to be trusted.

Mr Bush refused to commit himself to testifying before the new commission that will examine the handling of Iraq intelligence. He said only that he would be glad "to visit with them" and make recommendations to the panel, which will not issue its report until March 2005, five months after the presidential election.

In London, ministers launched a desperate effort to shift attention away from Iraq and on to public services after an ICM poll showed Labour level pegging with the Conservatives at 34 per cent popularity. There is expected to be a series of announcements about reforms before a Cabinet meeting on Thursday.

Dr Blix told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme: "One can interpret it different ways but the intention was to dramatise it, just as the vendors of some merchandise ... exaggerate the importance of what they have.

"But from politicians, of our leaders, in the Western world, I think we expect more than that. A bit more sincerity."

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, intensified his call for Mr Blair to clarify whether he took Britain to war without knowing that the 45-minute claim related only to short-range battlefield weapons, insisting the entire Joint Intelligence Committee should resign if that was actually the case.

Mr Cook told ITV: "If it is the case that, in these assessments that the JIC sent off to the Prime Minister, they never once explained that Saddam Huseein only had battlefield weapons, that is an appalling failure of communication.

"Frankly, if the Butler committee decides that was indeed the case, I think the Joint Intelligence Committee as a whole would have to go because how could the Prime Minister possibly have confidence in them after they failed to show in the information they had, the information he really needed to have?"

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "I think the Prime Minister himself has got to come back to the House of Commons and make a statement clarifying once and for all exactly who knew what, on what basis and at what time."

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