Partisan House spares Bush the tough questions

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The Independent US

More than three months into the United States' troubled occupation of Iraq, the issue of weapons of mass destruction has not gone away.

Congressional committees in Washington will hold hearings this month and the question of how the administration swallowed the fake story of Iraqi uranium purchases from Niger has emerged again.

But George Bush has enjoyed a far easier ride than Tony Blair. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, his Republican Party controls the Senate and House of Representatives and is unlikely to sanction any public investigation that might discredit a president whose popularity remains high.

Secondly, most of the Democratic presidential contenders who might raise the issue on the campaign trail tied their hands in October when they backed the congressional resolution granting Mr Bush sweeping war powers. A third explanation is that, amazingly, a substantial minority of Americans believe that the weapons have been discovered.

But the issue has not disappeared. The rise in popularity of Howard Dean, once regarded as a lightweight outsider for the Democratic nomination, in part reflects his trenchant opposition to the war.

And Mr Bush has not been helped by the decision of Joseph Wilson, the former US ambassador who was sent to Niger last year to check the uranium export claims, to tell his story. Though he reported back that the claims were bogus, they found their way into Mr Bush's State of the Union address in January.

The White House said that it never received the report. Mr Wilson said that was "inconceivable". He told the The Washington Post at the weekend that the administration had misrepresented the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war. He added: "It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"

Thus far, Mr Bush is being given the benefit of the doubt; that if the intelligence was wrong or misinterpreted, it was an honest mistake. He now talks of the existence of weapons programmes, rather than the banned weapons.

The controversy over the weapons may grow fiercer if the killing of US soldiers in Iraq continues at its current rate. But it is more likely that criticism will be directed at the increasingly obvious failure of Pentagon planning - not for the war itself, but for the aftermath.