Many Democrats contend that Americans were misled into backing the US-led war against Iraq by members of the White House, including the president himself.

Republicans are accusing George Tenet and the Central Intelligence Agency, saying they relied on disputed information and circumstantial evidence.

For Republicans, CIA Director Tenet is a particularly easy target for criticism. He was appointed by Democrat President Bill Clinton and has so far survived the new administration.

Earlier attack

The opening salvos were fired this week when an early draft of a Senate Intelligence Committee report was leaked to The Washington Post.

That draft, prepared by staff under the control of a Republican chairman, points to the CIA and other security agencies, saying they overstated both the threat of weapons of mass destruction and Baghdad's links with terrorism.

Senior Democrat senators, who believe Bush should bear the burden of responsibility rather than the intelligence agencies, fired back yesterday.

Democrats want to delay the report until the spring when a special team searching Iraq for evidence of its nuclear, germ and poison-gas warfare programmes delivers  its findings. No weapons of mass destruction have yet been found.

“All I can tell you is that there is no report,” said Senator John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, who promised to push the committee to examine the Bush administration's use, interpretation and presentation of intelligence reports.

In the wake of the leaked draft, which lays the blame squarely on intelligence agencies and exonerates the president, Mr. Rockefeller, the committee's vice-chairman, denounced any rushed judgment.

“I'm not going to characterize it as a whitewash,” he said. “I'm going to characterize it as a very incomplete matter.”

“The executive was ill served by the intelligence community,” he added.

Presidential card

Democrats want to delay the report until the spring when a special team searching Iraq for evidence of its nuclear, germ and poison-gas warfare programmes delivers its findings. No weapons of mass destruction have yet been found.

Were the argument delayed until the spring, Bush would be forced to deal with the issue in the middle of his presidential re-election campaign.

The CIA is also now defending its corner.

It is one of the few intelligence agencies with a press office and spokesman.

The spokesman, Bill Harlow, said the committee still hadn't fully heard the CIA's side of the case or taken up an offer from Tenet to appear.

So as the election approaches, the blame game is set only to intensify.