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Friday, October 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

No weapons, no matter, Bush says

By Warren P. Strobel and Matt Stearns
Knight Ridder Newspapers

President Bush speaks during a campaign stop yesterday in Wausau, Wis. He continued his defense of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration yesterday launched a campaign to blunt the effect of a report that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction by arguing that the findings still justify the decision to invade Iraq.

President Bush said the report by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer shows that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was manipulating the U.N. oil-for-food program to gain influence with countries that could help him lift U.N. economic sanctions.

"He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program, once the world looked away," Bush said in his first comments on the report, which found Saddam had no stockpiles of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and no concrete programs to make them.

"Based on all the information we have today, I believe we were right to take action, and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison," the president said.

But Bush also made his most emphatic statement yet on his administration's error, saying Duelfer's findings show that U.S. and allied intelligence on Iraq's weapons "was wrong."

Duelfer concluded that Saddam hadn't restarted his nuclear-weapons program, had destroyed biological- and chemical-weapons stocks, and had hoped to eventually redevelop such weapons to deter neighboring Iran and enhance his regional power, not to attack the United States, as Bush and his aides claimed.

John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, responded with some of the most contemptuous language he has used against Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Kerry said the administration had "aggrandized and fictionalized" the threat posed by Saddam in the run-up to the war, was unprepared for the war's aftermath and remained intransigent now that prewar intelligence has been undermined by a series of inspection reports.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said in Englewood, Colo., "the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."

But Bush and his top aides sought to focus attention on parts of the Duelfer report that revealed Saddam's elaborate plans to evade and weaken the U.N. sanctions, which they said would free him to revive banned weapons programs.

Duelfer said dozens of world leaders and some U.S. companies were given the right to buy specific quantities of Iraqi oil at less than market prices. They could resell these rights at a profit.
Among those who received these rights, Duelfer said, were Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Charles Pasqua, France's interior minister.

By awarding these rights, Saddam hoped to enlist their help to lift sanctions against his regime, according to Duelfer's report.

In an interview, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saddam "was doing everything he could to get out from under the sanctions. He was cheating on the sanctions."

Powell made the administration's case on Saddam's weapons programs and ties to terrorism in a February 2003 address to the U.N. Security Council.

Powell also cited Saddam's "potential" connections to terrorist organizations as a reason to act.

Yet in another classified report delivered to policy-makers last week, the CIA found that it couldn't confirm that Saddam had a relationship with terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as Powell had suggested to the U.N.

The secretary of state said that, nonetheless, al-Zarqawi "had a presence in Baghdad. He traveled in and out. He was responsible for the murder" of U.S. Agency for International Development official Laurence Foley in neighboring Jordan.

Campaigning in Florida, Cheney yesterday highlighted the Duelfer report's finding that Saddam had siphoned off billions of dollars from the U.N. oil-for-food program and hoped to bribe other countries.

"As soon as the sanctions were lifted, he had every intention of going back to business as usual" and restarting the weapons programs, Cheney told a town-hall meeting in Miami. "So delay, defer, wait was not an option."

The arguments Bush, Cheney and Powell made yesterday were a far cry from their prewar arguments for invading Iraq.

Cheney said then that the Iraqi dictator had weapons stockpiles that he might give to terrorists. He even suggested at one point that Saddam might have nuclear weapons.

Additionally, Duelfer's report doesn't go as far as Cheney did yesterday in predicting what Saddam might have done.

Duelfer, who interviewed Saddam, concluded that the deposed dictator wanted to restart the weapons programs he had abandoned after the 1991 Gulf War and could have done so within months of sanctions being lifted.

But Duelfer also wrote that "the regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions."

Former U.N. weapons inspectors Rolf Ekeus and Hans Blix said yesterday that Duelfer's report shows that U.N. inspections and international sanctions were containing Saddam's ambitions.

Blix said that if his inspectors had been allowed to continue their work in Iraq — instead of having to leave on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion — Saddam would have been effectively contained. If further inspections had shown there were no weapons stockpiles, monitoring of Iraq's production facilities would have continued along with import controls and spot inspections.

"Saddam would have remained," Blix said, "but he would have become like (Fidel) Castro or (Moammar) Gadhafi, in power but not a threat to his neighbors."

Comments by Kerry and Blix were provided by The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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