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Bush, Cheney admit Iraq had no WMD, take new tack

They cite oil-for-food scam as justification for invasion


October 8, 2004

WASHINGTON – President Bush and his vice president conceded yesterday in the clearest terms yet that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, trying to shift the Iraq war debate to a new issue – whether the invasion was justified because Hussein was abusing a U.N. oil-for-food program.

Bush's response was his first reaction to a report released Wednesday by Charles Duelfer, the CIA's top weapons inspector, that contradicted the White House's main argument for invading Iraq.

Ridiculing the Bush administration's evolving rationale for war, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry said, "You don't make up or find reasons to go to war after the fact."

Vice President Dick Cheney brushed aside Duelfer's central findings – that Hussein not only had no weapons of mass destruction and had not made any since 1991, but that he had no capability of making any – while Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq.

Presidential debate:
Round two

Who: President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Where: Washington University in St. Louis

When: 6-7:30 p.m. PDT today

Live TV coverage: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN, CSPAN, MSNBC and PBS

Format: Town hall-style meeting with voters asking questions

Moderator: Charles Gibson of ABC's "Good Morning America"

Next debate: The last of three presidential face-offs will be Wednesday at Arizona State University in Tempe

"The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the U.N. oil-for-food program to try to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions," Bush said as he prepared to fly to campaign events in Wisconsin. "He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program once the world looked away."

Kerry, emboldened by the report's unraveling of the administration's prime rationale for going to war, issued his sharpest indictment yet, telling reporters in Englewood, Colo., that Bush and Cheney "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."

Duelfer found no formal plan by Hussein to resume production of banned weapons, but the inspector surmised that the ousted dictator intended to do so if U.N. sanctions were lifted. Bush seized upon that inference, using the word "intent" three times in reference to possible Hussein plans to resume making weapons.

This week marks the first time that the Bush administration has listed abuses in the U.N. oil-for-fuel program as a rationale for war with Iraq. But the strategy holds risks because the countries that could be implicated include U.S. allies, such as Poland, Jordan and Egypt. In addition, the United States played a significant role in both the creation of the program and how it was operated and overseen.

For his part, Cheney dismissed the significance of Duelfer's central findings, telling supporters in Miami: "The headlines all say, 'No weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in Baghdad.' We already knew that."

The vice president said he found other parts of the report "more intriguing," including the finding that Hussein's main goal was the removal of international sanctions.

"As soon as the sanctions were lifted, he had every intention of going back" to his weapons program, Cheney said.

The report underscored that "delay, defer, wait wasn't an option," Cheney said. He told a later forum in Fort Myers, Fla., speaking of the oil-for-food program: "The sanctions regime was coming apart at the seams. Saddam perverted that whole thing and generated billions of dollars."

Yet Bush and Cheney acknowledged more definitively than before that Hussein did not have the banned weapons that both men had asserted he did – and had cited as the major justification before attacking Iraq last year.

Bush has recently left the question open. For example, when asked in June whether he thought such weapons had existed in Iraq, the president said he would "wait until Charlie (Duelfer) gets back with the final report."

In July, Bush said, "We have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction," a sentence construction that kept alive the possibility that the weapons might yet be discovered.

Yesterday, Bush used the clearest language to date nailing the question shut. "Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there," he said, his words placing the blame on U.S. intelligence agencies.

In recent weeks, Cheney has glossed over the primary justification for the war, most often by simply not mentioning it. But in late January, Cheney told reporters in Rome, "There's still work to be done to ascertain exactly what's there."

That same week, when asked on National Public Radio whether Iraq had possessed banned weapons, Cheney said, "The jury is still out."

Duelfer's report was presented to senators and the public with less than four weeks left in a fierce presidential campaign dominated by questions about Iraq and the war on terror.

Bush has chosen to give no ground on his handling of the war, even after a week that his own aides concede has brought nothing but bad news, from the CIA report to a declaration by the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, that the administration committed far too few troops to secure Iraq after the invasion was over.

Yesterday in Bayonne, N.J., Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards called "amazing" Cheney's assertions that the Duelfer report justified rather than undermined Bush's decision to go to war, and he accused the Republican of using "convoluted logic."

While campaigning in Wisconsin, Bush angrily responded to Kerry's charge that he sought to "make up" a reason for war.

"He's claiming I misled America about weapons when he, himself, cited the very same intelligence about Saddam's weapons programs as the reason he voted to go to war," Bush said. Citing a lengthy Kerry quote from two years ago on the threat Hussein could pose, Bush said, "Just who's the one trying to mislead the American people?"

The Kerry campaign said Bush had yanked the words out of context and noted that in the same speech, Kerry said: "Regime change in and of itself is not sufficient justification for going to war, particularly unilaterally, unless regime change is the only way to disarm Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction pursuant to the United Nations resolution. As bad as he is, Saddam Hussein, the dictator, is not the cause of war."

The New York Times News Service contributed to this report.

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