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Political arc of a faulty prewar claim

Growing doubts about the US progress in Iraq are feeding the controversy over a line in President Bush's State of the Union speech

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President Bush's State of the Union claim - now discredited - that Iraq tried to purchase nuclear materials from Africa was only one item in a long list of charges making the case for war. But it has sparked one of the biggest political firestorms of Mr. Bush's tenure - which, despite the administration's strenuous efforts to quell it, shows little sign of fading away.

Although CIA director George Tenet has taken responsibility for failing to excise the charge from the president's address, a number of questions remain unanswered, such as why the information was included in the first place, given that Mr. Tenet reportedly had struck a similar line from a presidential speech three months earlier.

And while polls show so far few Americans know much about the incident, the ongoing reverberations have the potential to damage Bush politically on a number of levels.

Democrats are attacking the president's reliance on flawed evidence - and his subsequent efforts to shift the blame elsewhere - to try to undercut his image as a straight shooter, one of his greatest political strengths. But even if the public largely accepts that the president simply made an honest mistake, the incident may feed an already growing belief that the administration, whether intentionally or not, overestimated the Iraqi weapons threat in the run up to war. Particularly as the instability in Iraq continues, with more and more US troops losing their lives and no weapons of mass destruction yet found, more Americans may begin to question whether the war was worth it - and whether the president led the nation on an appropriate course.

"If it becomes more vivid in people's minds that there was not a serious threat [in Iraq], then the costs will become even more salient, and people may feel we made a mistake" in going to war, says Steven Kull, director of the Project on International Policy Attitudes. "We're not there yet," he adds. "But the arrows are going in that direction."

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