Rumsfeld, Bremer and WMD inspectors cast shadow on war

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The Independent US

President George Bush's rationale for the Iraq war, and his subsequent handling of the conflict, have been separately undermined by two of his own top officials - handing precious new ammunition to the Democrats as the election campaign enters a crucial phase.

President George Bush's rationale for the Iraq war, and his subsequent handling of the conflict, have been separately undermined by two of his own top officials ­ handing precious new ammunition to the Democrats as the election campaign enters a crucial phase.

The first blow came when Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary and a prime architect of the war, told foreign policy experts that he had never seen "strong, hard evidence" linking Saddam Hussein with al-Qa'ida.

His words, answering questions at a Council of Foreign Relations meeting in New York, implicitly take issue with one of Mr Bush's long-standing arguments to justify the March 2003 invasion. They were also likely to be seized upon by John Edwards in his debate last night with Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has laid special stress on the Saddam-al-Qa'ida connection.

Hours later, the man who was the US pro-consul in Iraq for 15 months until June 2004 complained that the Bush administration failed to send a large enough force to deal with the violence and looting after Saddam had been toppled. "We never had enough troops on the ground," Paul Bremer told an insurance conference in West Virginia. Yesterday the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, leapt on the admission by Mr Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority until it was disbanded. "Now we learn that America's top official in Iraq acknowledges that we didn't deploy enough troops and didn't contain the violence ­ I hope that Mr Cheney can acknowledge those mistakes tonight," Mr Kerry declared.

Mr Bremer tried to repair the damage, issuing a statement that he was referring only to the immediate post-war period and that he fully supported current efforts to train an Iraqi force to take over security duties. But the damage was done, with the remarks from a man who has been a staunch supporter of the President.

In an earlier and hitherto unnoticed speech at DePauw University in Indiana last month, Mr Bremer confessed he "should have been even more insistent" in his advice to the administration. Had he been so, the situation today in Iraq might be much improved, he said.

If that were not enough, almost every day brings new reminders of how Mr Bush's main rationale for the war ­ the threat posed by Saddam's supposed arsenal of illicit chemical, biological and nuclear weapons ­ has crumbled. At the weekend, The New York Times published new evidence that the administration presented Saddam's purchase of aluminium tubes as proof that he was reconstituting Iraq's nuclear programme ­ even as it was being told by its own experts that the tubes were destined not for centrifuges to enrich uranium, but for much smaller (and perfectly legal) artillery rockets.

Today, Charles Duelfer, the chief US arms inspector in Iraq, is due to present a 1,500-page report to Congress concluding that Iraq neither had weapons of mass destruction, nor significant WMD production programmes at the time of the invasion. The only crumb Mr Duelfer can offer the White House is that Saddam intended to reactivate his plans to produce such weapons once UN sanctions were lifted.

The array of challenges to his Iraq strategy comes at a bad moment for the Bush campaign, as the President tries to regain the ground lost after his heavily panned showing in his first debate with Mr Kerry.

The debate's topic of foreign policy was assumed to favour Mr Bush. Instead the President appeared testy, lacklustre and poorly prepared. Mr Kerry by contrast shone, and has now pulled back level in the polls.

In a sign of the mounting concern at the White House, Mr Bush's handlers abruptly tore up a speech on medical liability he was due to deliver in the swing state of Pennsylvania today. Mr Bush will now make a "significant" address dealing with the economy and the "war on terror" ­ the latter is still his strongest suit, polls say.

Whether Mr Rumsfeld's candour will change the way the country thinks is another matter. A CNN/Gallup poll has found that 42 per cent of Americans still believe that the former Iraqi leader was involved in the attacks, and an astonishing 32 per cent that Saddam had planned them in person.

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