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Bush, VP alter basis for Iraq war

Say Hussein had 'ability to make' deadly weapons

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and Vice President Cheney yesterday said the war in Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein could have made weapons of mass destruction.

The new rationale offered by the president and vice president, significantly more modest than earlier statements about Hussein's capabilities, comes after government experts have said it is unlikely banned weapons will be found in Iraq and Bush's naming Friday of a commission to examine faulty prewar intelligence.

"Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I'm not just going to leave him in power and trust a madman," Bush said yesterday in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" to be broadcast today. "He's a dangerous man. He had the ability to make weapons at the very minimum."

Cheney delivered a nearly identical message yesterday to a group of Republican donors in suburban Chicago. "We know that Saddam Hussein had the intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Saddam Hussein had something else -- he had a record of using weapons of mass destruction against his enemies and against his own people."

In the NBC interview, excerpts of which were released by the network, Bush also said that the CIA is "ably led" by its director, George Tenet, and that Tenet's job is "not at all" in jeopardy. Tenet, in a speech last week, defended the agency's Iraq intelligence. While he acknowledged flaws, he said the CIA did not argue that Hussein was a certain or imminent threat.

Before the invasion of Iraq 11 months ago, Bush and Cheney argued that Iraq was an urgent threat to the United States, stating with certainty that Iraq had chemical and biological arms and had rebuilt a nuclear weapons program. "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," Bush said last March.

Bush said he would "visit" with the commission he named last week to investigate the Iraq intelligence but suggested that he would not testify before it.

Bush's appearance on today's talk show, the first of his presidency, comes as new polls show declining public support for his leadership. A Newsweek poll released yesterday found that 48 percent of Americans approve of his performance in office, the lowest in three years. By 50 percent to 45 percent, respondents said they did not want to see him reelected.

Another poll, by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, found support for Bush at 64 percent after his State of the Union address Jan. 20, but dropped to 54 percent from Jan. 26 to 31 -- the time when Kay, the former chief US weapons inspector, said weapons stocks were unlikely to be found in Iraq. Bush's approval rating stands at 56 percent in this poll.

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