LIMA, Ohio — President Bush on Thursday suggested for the first time that the United States may not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as he raised the possibility that Saddam Hussein may have destroyed, moved or hidden his biological and chemical weapons before the war began.
Whatever the case, Bush vowed in a speech to workers at the Lima Army Tank Plant, "we are going to find out the truth."
The status of such weapons is no small matter because ridding Iraq of illegal arms and ousting Hussein were Bush's justifications for starting the war.
The president spoke of the as-yet-fruitless search for such weapons during a speech that the White House billed as a broad update on the war in Iraq.
Later, in an interview with Tom Brokaw on "NBC Nightly News," Bush noted that there was some evidence suggesting that Hussein was either dead or, "at the very minimum, severely wounded."
But he said: "We would never make that declaration [of Hussein's death] until we are more certain."
At his first speech of the day -- given in North Canton, Ohio, and devoted largely to the economy -- Bush very nearly declared the war over.
Addressing hundreds of workers at a steel and ball-bearing factory there, he said: "We fought a war in Afghanistan, and now we have finished a war -- in the process of finishing a war in Iraq."
In his remarks at the Lima plant, which manufactures the workhorse Abrams tanks that charged across the Iraqi desert, Bush was more emphatic in declaring that the war was not over.
"The mission is not complete. Our forces still face danger in Iraq. Our enemy is scattered, but they're still capable of doing harm," Bush said.
He said that U.S. forces in Iraq are now "working to locate and destroy" Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
"But so far nothing has turned up."
The president reported that senior Iraqi officials with firsthand knowledge of such weapons programs now are "beginning to cooperate, are beginning to let us know what the facts were on the ground."
Bush noted, however, that Hussein had spent more than a decade hiding and disguising his weapons, and added: "And so it's going to take time to find them. But we know he had them.
"And whether he destroyed them, moved them or hid them, we're going to find out the truth."
The only sure thing is that "Saddam Hussein no longer threatens America with weapons of mass destruction," Bush said.
Aside from his guarded comments about Iraq's weapons program, Bush delivered a largely upbeat war report.
"We're witnessing historic days in the cause of freedom," he said. "Just over a month ago, not all that long ago, a cruel dictator ruled a country, ruled Iraq by torture and fear. His regime was allied with terrorists, and the regime was armed with weapons of mass destruction.
"Today, that regime is no more," he said.
He acknowledged that the reconstruction of the oil-rich nation will be difficult and that "the fear and suspicion [Hussein] instilled in the people will take longer to pass away."
Bush also reiterated his pledge that U.S. troops would stay in Iraq only "as long as it takes to complete our mission," which he defined as "a free nation in the hands of a free people."
Bush offered no timetable to the plant workers, but he assured them that steady progress was being made.
"There's tangible, visible progress on the ground there in Iraq. Step by step, the citizens of that country are reclaiming their own country. They're identifying former officials who are guilty of crimes. That deck of cards seems to be getting complete over time," the president said, referring to playing cards featuring the most-wanted Iraqi leaders distributed to U.S. troops.
"Iraqis are now speaking their mind in public. That's a good sign. That means a new day has come in Iraq," the president said.