Democrats step up attack on Bush's war policy despite seizure of dictator

Despite the huge policy bonus handed to President Bush by the capture of Saddam Hussein, his most likely Democratic challenger for the Presidency kept up his criticism of the Iraq war yesterday, arguing that the seizure of the former dictator "has not made America safer".

In a keynote foreign policy speech in Los Angeles, Howard Dean insisted that his hostility to the war has not changed. The Bush administration had launched the conflict "in the wrong way at the wrong time".

Its massive cost - $166bn (£95bn) and counting - might have been less if more foreign countries had been persuaded to take part.

Instead, the former Vermont Governor told the Pacific Council on International Policy, the latest events in Iraq represented "a new opportunity to move ahead, not a guarantee".

"The capture of Saddam does not end our difficulties," Mr Dean said, as he underlined the "continuing challenge, and the continuing need, to repair our alliances and regain global support for American goals." He said Mr Bush had not explained how Saddam's capture would lead to greater security, nor how it would halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Dean's forthright criticism of the Iraq war, even before the invasion was launched, has fuelled his remarkable surge to the head of the Democratic field, although it also reflects his readiness to take on a President regarded by activist Democrats with little short of loathing. That feeling is unlikely to have changed, even after the seizure of the deposed dictator, with all its symbolic closing of an era in the Middle East.

But the development could yet throw a big spanner into the battle for the Democratic nomination. Major and sustained US successes in rebuilding Iraq may blunt what will be one of his most powerful arguments, were the former Vermont governor to win the nomination to challenge Mr Bush in 2004.

Just possibly, some analysts believe, Mr Dean's appeal might also be dented in the primaries, which get under way with contests in Iowa and New Hampshire next month. The beneficiaries, they argue, would be candidates who supported the war.

As news of the former Iraqi leader's capture spread, Joe Lieberman, running mate of Al Gore in 2000 and the most hawkish Democrat in the field, lashed out at Mr Dean. "If Howard Dean had had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place," said the Connecticut senator.

Until the galvanising shock of Mr Gore's endorsement of Mr Dean last week, the Lieberman campaign had been languishing. His aides claim that that "betrayal" and the vindication provided by Saddam Hussein's capture will persuade Democratic primary voters to take a second look at their man.

Though he avoided praise for Mr Bush yesterday, Mr Dean was forced to utter some rare kind words for the President on Sunday, immediately after the stunning news arrived from Iraq. "This is a great day of pride in the American military, a great day for the Iraqi people ... I think President Bush deserves a day of celebration," he said.

But Dean aides insisted that the thrust of the major foreign policy speech he was giving in California yesterday had not been changed by the dramatic events in Iraq. "The issue wasn't capturing Saddam," said Ivo Daalder, a former senior official on the Clinton National Security Council and a foreign policy adviser to Mr Dean. "The issue is whether this was the right war at the right time, and that critique still stands."

Mr Daalder is one of several former Clinton foreign policy specialists enlisted by the Dean campaign to make up for their man's perceived lack of international experience. Mr Dean was introduced yesterday by Warren Christopher, the former Secretary of State, and is also being advised by Anthony Lake, a former National Security Adviser for Mr Clinton.

Privately, though, every Democratic candidate admits that, barring a real upsurge in American casualties in Iraq, the capture of Saddam Hussein is a real boost for the White House, providing stronger justification for the launch of the war and enabling Mr Bush to rebut suggestions that, with Saddam still at large, the United States was sinking into a Vietnam-like morass.

A USA Today poll carried out immediately after news broke of Saddam's capture showed opposition among Americans to the war had dropped to the lowest level since the fall of Baghdad in early April.

In a separate Washington Post/ABC poll, Mr Bush's handling of the war was praised by 58 per cent, up from 48 per cent in November. Even so, nine out 10 of those surveyed said the US still faced "big challenges" in Iraq, and one in three thought that the capture of Saddam would make little difference to the parlous security situation in the country.