BRUSSELS, Belgium — As President Bush begins a European tour to patch up trans-Atlantic relations, comments from senior defense officials about Iraq's weapons have revived controversy in Europe over whether the war was justified.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz cited bureaucratic reasons for focusing on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and said a "huge" result of the war was to enable Washington to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia.

"The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason," Wolfowitz was quoted as saying in a Pentagon transcript of an interview with Vanity Fair.

The magazine's reporter did not tape the telephone interview and provided a slightly different version of the quote in the article: "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."

In Washington, meanwhile, it was announced that a large new U.S. team heading into Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction will shift its focus away from areas identified as suspicious sites before the war.

Instead, the searchers will focus on areas where documents, interviews with Iraqis and other new clues suggest biological or chemical weapons could be hidden, Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton said.

Dayton leaves Monday for Baghdad, where he will head the Iraq Survey Group. The team of about 1,400 experts from the United States, Great Britain and Australia will take over the weapons search from a smaller U.S. military team.

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Iraq's weapons of mass destruction may have been destroyed before the war.

"It is also possible that they (Saddam Hussein's government) decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict," he told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz suggested Washington fabricated weapons claims, and an aide to the defense secretary, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted their remarks had been misinterpreted.

However, the remarks were widely published in Europe and were seen by skeptical Europeans as a tacit admission that the United States overstated Iraq's weapons threat.

The Daily Express of London ran a report Friday on the statements by the two U.S. officials with the headline "Just Complete and Utter Lies."

"Claims that the world was lied to about the reasons for going to war in Iraq gathered pace yesterday as fresh doubts were cast on Britain and America's account of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction," the newspaper said.

Bush flew to Europe on Friday with stops in Poland, Russia and an economic summit with leaders of other industrialized democracies in Evian, France. U.S. officials hope past bitterness over Iraq won't get in the way of efforts to fight terrorism, AIDS, and famine, and to improve world trade.

However, the weapons comments reopened wounds from the strident debate ahead of the war.

In Germany, where the war was widely unpopular, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeiting newspaper said the comments showed America is losing the battle for credibility.

"The charge of deception is inescapable," the newspaper said.

Opposition parties in Denmark, whose government supported the war, demanded to know if Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen misled the public about Iraq's weapons.

"It was not what the Danish prime minister said when he advocated support for the war," said Jeppe Kofod, foreign affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats. "Those who went to war now have a big problem explaining it." -->

During his interview with Vanity Fair in early May, Wolfowitz cited several payoffs from the war, including removing the need for American forces in Saudi Arabia.

Those troops were sent to protect the desert kingdom against Saddam, whose forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. But their presence in the country that is home to Islam's holiest sites enraged many Muslims, including al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Within two weeks of the fall of Baghdad, the United States announced it was removing most of its 5,000 troops from Saudi Arabia.

"Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government," Wolfowitz said. "It's been a huge recruiting device for al-Qaida."

Wolfowitz insisted in the interview, and in Singapore on Friday, that there had always been three major concerns.

"One was weapons of mass destruction, second was terrorism, and the third . . . was the abuse of Iraqis by their own government," Wolfowitz said at the sidelines of the Asia Security Conference in Singapore.

"And in a sense there was a fourth overriding one, which was the connection between those first two, the connection between the weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. All three of those have been there, they've always been part of the rationale and I think it's been very clear."

Wolfowitz also told reporters in Singapore the Pentagon is not planning to move most of the 20,000 Marines based in Okinawa to Australia, but confirmed that the United States is talking with Japan about moving some troops out of the country.

Speculation that Marines might be redeployed to Australia is "simply not right," Wolfowitz said.

The Marines have been a source of friction between the United States and Japan in recent years.

Coalition forces' inability to find significant stocks of banned weapons has only fueled European skepticism over Washington's motives.

Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Friday he was convinced before and during the war that at least some Iraqi units had chemical weapons.

"It was a surprise to me then — it remains a surprise to me now — that we have not uncovered weapons, as you say, in some of the forward dispersal sites," he told reporters at the Pentagon during a video teleconference from Iraq.

The issue of Iraqi weapons is especially problematic for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America's closest ally in the Iraq war. Blair insisted Friday that he was certain concrete evidence of banned weapons will be found.

"Have a little patience," he said in Warsaw, Poland. "I have absolutely no doubt at all that we will present the full evidence after we have investigated all the sites, after we've interviewed all the scientists and experts, and this will take place in the coming weeks and months."

Contributing: Los Angeles Times.