WASHINGTON -- The White House retreated Monday from its once-confident claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and Democrats swiftly sought to turn the about-face into an election-year issue against President Bush.
The administration's switch came after retired chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay said he had concluded, after nine months of searching, that Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of forbidden weapons. Asked about Kay's remarks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to repeat oft-stated assertions that prohibited weapons eventually would be found.
McClellan said the inspectors should continue their work "so that they can draw as complete a picture as possible. And then we can learn -- it will help us learn the truth."
Kay, meanwhile, was called to appear at a public hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday and agreed to attend, a Senate aide said.
Sen. John Kerry, seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said Bush had misled the nation. "When the president of the United States looks at you and tells you something, there should be some trust," Kerry said from the campaign trail in Keene, N.H. "He's broken every one of those promises."
Howard Dean, another Democratic candidate, said, "The White House has not been candid with the American people about virtually anything with the Iraq war."
Vice President Dick Cheney, meeting in Rome with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, did not answer when a reporter asked if he felt prewar intelligence was faulty. Cheney was one of the administration's most forceful advocates of war and was outspoken in describing Iraq's alleged threat.
Kerry has questioned whether Cheney tried to pressure CIA analysts who wrote reports on Iraq's weapon programs.
A senior administration official on the Cheney trip said the "jury is still out" on whether the intelligence accurately reflected what kind of weapons were in Iraq.
"Obviously we want to compare the intelligence from before the war with what the Iraq Survey Group learns on the ground," McClellan said.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, traveling in Vienna, Austria, said the Iraq war was justified, even if banned weapons are never found, because it eliminated the threat that Saddam might again resort to "evil chemistry and evil biology."
Saddam's willingness to use such weapons was sufficient cause to overthrow his regime, Ashcroft said, referring to the use of chemical and biological arms against Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
Even before Kay announced his conclusion, Bush had changed his public rationale about the war as the search for weapons proved fruitless. Bush cast it as a broader war against terrorism, calling Iraq the central front, and said democracy would spread in the Middle East if it took hold in Iraq.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it was disappointing that inspectors have not found evidence "of what the whole of the international community believes, and genuinely believed, about weapons programs and weapons stockpiles which Saddam had."
Kay tried to deflect heat from Bush.
Asked whether Bush owed the nation an explanation for the discrepancies between his warnings and Kay's findings, Kay said, "I actually think the intelligence community owes the president, rather than the president owing the American people."