US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Wednesday that the US had not gone to war against Iraq because of fresh evidence of weapons of mass destruction but because Washington saw old evidence "in a dramatic new light" after Sept. 11.
The claim, in testimony to the Senate, reflected a sharp change in tactics by an administration that is under fire for knowingly basing its case against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on flawed intelligence.
US President George W. Bush on Wednesday accused his critics of "trying to rewrite history," and insisted that Saddam posed a threat to world peace.
In his State of the Union address in January, the president referred to a British intelligence report that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium in Africa, for use in its nuclear weapons program.
But the White House this week admitted the claim was not based on solid information, and that documents purporting an Iraqi attempt to buy "yellow cake" raw uranium from Niger had been forged.
The administration on Wednesday played down the importance of the allegations made by the president in his January speech, and then by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a presentation to the UN in February. Instead, the president and his aides all suggested that the case against Saddam had been built on his cumulative defiance of the international community.
"The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit" of weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light -- through the prism of our experience on 9/11."
His remarks were controversial not only because they implied that fresh evidence of Saddam's activity did not play a role in going to war. The comments also implied that the link between Iraq and al-Qaeda was built more on changing perceptions of the danger such an alliance would pose, rather than on evidence that it actually existed, as the administration had claimed.
Bush on Wednesday ducked questions over the flawed intelligence on Iraq's nuclear program, but was adamant he was right to oust former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Bush, in South Africa on the second leg of an African tour, deflected a question on whether he regretted highlighting the allegation in his January speech.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace and there is no doubt in my mind the United States along with our allies and friends did the right thing in removing him from power," Bush said at a joint appearance with South African President Thabo Mbeki.
"I am absolutely confident in the decision I made. I'm confident that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."
Still savoring the White House's backpedalling on its claims that Iraq had tried to obtain nuclear materials from Africa, Democrat Hillary Clinton worried about "the quality, the accuracy and the use of intelligence" including the now-discredited claims of an Africa-Iraq link.
"In this new threat environment in which we find ourselves, we are increasingly reliant on intelligence," Clinton said at the Senate committee meeting.
Rumsfeld testified he had only recently learned the intelligence reports saying Iraq had tried to obtain processed uranium from Africa were bogus.