ATLANTIC, Iowa - Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean on Tuesday called for an independent investigation of President Bush and his justification for the U.S.-led war against Iraq, arguing that the commander in chief misled the country.
"I think the president owes this country an explanation because what the president said was not entirely truthful, and he needs to explain why that was," Dean said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Dean cited a number of statements made by Bush and other senior administration officials about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the dangers that the regime posed to the United States. The candidate said the claims were made even though officials knew they weren't true.
"We need a thorough look at what really happened going into Iraq," Dean said. "It appears to me that what the president did was make a decision to go into Iraq sometime in early 2002, or maybe even late 2001, and then try to get the justification afterward."
Earlier Tuesday, Bush fired back at his critics who have suggested that the administration inflated prewar intelligence data on Iraq's weapons program as a justification for war. He said the most overlooked fact is that "the people of Iraq are free."
"I know there's a lot of revisionist history going on. But he (Saddam Hussein) is no longer a threat to the free world," Bush said during an appearance at a community college in a Washington suburb.
Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, also told reporters that the president still believes such weapons existed.
It is highly unlikely that Bush would move forward with an independent inquiry even if the criticism grows louder.
Dean, an outspoken opponent of the war, said an independent probe is warranted because the Republican-controlled Congress is unwilling to challenge a popular GOP president.
"No one is going to trust a right-wing Congress to do this," said the former Vermont governor.
Dean's rival, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, also said Tuesday that the inability of coalition forces to find weapons of mass destruction at this point calls into question the credibility of the administration.
Regarding Graham, Dean sought to smooth the waters with his foe after saying on Monday that the senator is "not one of the top-tier candidates" seeking the party's nomination, a comment Dean regretted.
Dean said he would speak with Graham during an upcoming joint campaign appearance.
"I'll see him next weekend," Dean said. "I shouldn't be handicapping the field."
© 2003 The Associated Press