New Hampshire gives Democrats another chance to attack Bush

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The Independent US

As New Hampshire voters flocked to the polls yesterday to vote in the first presidential primary, the Democratic presidential contenders gained a powerful weapon of their own against George Bush.

The acknowledgement by David Kay, the outgoing head of the American-led Iraq Survey Group, that Saddam Hussein probably did not have WMD at the time of the invasion, has been seized upon by several candidates as proof that Mr Bush duped the country when he took it to war last March.

"This shows there was an enormous amount of stretching, exaggeration and deception," John Kerry, the Senator for Massachusetts, said this week, and several of his rivals for the party's nomination used much the same language. Mr Kay's words have also given fresh ammunition to Howard Dean as he sought to claw back Mr Kerry's lead.

While Senator Kerry continued to tout his foreign policy experience, built up over two decades in the upper house, as a qualification for the presidency his rivals cannot match, Mr Dean, a former Vermont governor, has used the Iraq controversy to undermine that claim.

How was Mr Kerry's judgement to be trusted, Mr Dean asked, if he voted against the 1991 Iraq war, "when Saddam's troops had occupied Kuwait and the oilfields were burning", yet in October 2002 supported the congressional resolution granting Mr Bush carte blanche to launch his unnecessary and unjustified war in 2003?

Mr Kerry has trouble providing a succinct explanation. But so do other candidates, including Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who voted for the resolution, and retired General Wesley Clark, who said he probably would have done so had he been in Congress.

Their line is that they were taken for a ride. "[Donald] Rumsfeld [the Defence Secretary] told a group of retired generals before the war that 'I know where 30 per cent of the weapons are'," General Clark said. "When a Secretary of Defence says that you tend to believe him." Of the leading candidates only Senator Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut, a staunch supporter of the war, has stuck to his position. But even he is calling for an investigation into why the war was launched. With the election looming and the Republicans in command on Capitol Hill, any action by Congress is unlikely.

Mr Bush insists he was right to depose Saddam, telling reporters yesterday that he was even more convinced now that the Iraqi dictator had been a "grave and gathering threat" to America. But behind the scenes the White House is trying to deflect blame for the debacle on to the intelligence community and George Tenet, the CIA director, who is likely to step down after the election.

Mr Kay, a hawk on Iraq, has also adopted this line, denying that Mr Bush had abused the trust of the American people. "If anyone was abused, it was the President," he said. The strategy could backfire.

Last summer, Mr Tenet beat off a White House attempt to hold him responsible for the 16 words alleging Saddam had tried to buy uranium ore from Africa, which found their way into the 2003 State of the Union speech, to the embarrassment of the administration. This time, he may be equally unaccommodating, especially since many senior intelligence operatives here are furious at becoming convenient scapegoats when the CIA had been more cautious in its assessment of the risk posed by Iraq than the Pentagon and the office of the Vice-President, Dick Cheney.