The president acknowledges that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, but cites oil-for-food abuses.
WASHINGTON - President Bush and his vice president conceded Thursday in the clearest terms yet that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, even as they tried 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.
Ridiculing the Bush administration's evolving rationale for war, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry shot back: "You don't make up or find reasons to go to war after the fact."
Vice President Dick Cheney brushed aside the central findings of chief U.S. weapons hunter Charles Duelfer - 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 either - while Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq.
"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. "He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program once the world looked away."
Duelfer found no formal plan by Hussein to resume WMD production, but surmised that he intended to do so if U.N. sanctions were lifted. Bush used the word "intent" three times in reference to Hussein's plans to resume making weapons.
This week marks the first time that the Bush administration has listed abuses in the oil-for-fuel program as an Iraq war rationale. But the strategy holds risks because some of the countries that could be implicated include U.S. allies, such as Poland, Jordan and Egypt. In addition, the United States itself played a significant role in both the creation of the program and how it was operated and overseen.
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."
Cheney 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. And he told a forum in Fort Myers, 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 in March 2003.
Bush has recently left the question open. Asked in June whether he thought such weapons had existed in Iraq, Bush 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 weapons might yet be discovered. On Thursday, the president used the clearest language to date nailing the question shut:
"Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there," Bush said. His words placed 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 2004, Cheney said: "There's still work to be done to ascertain exactly what's there."
"The jury is still out," he told National Public Radio the same week, when asked whether Iraq had possessed banned weapons.
Duelfer's report was presented Wednesday with less than four weeks left in a presidential campaign dominated by questions about Iraq and the war on terror.
In Bayonne, N.J., Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards called "amazing" Cheney's assertions that the Duelfer report justified Bush's decision to go to war.
Kerry, campaigning in Colorado, said: "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."
Bush angrily responded to Kerry's charge 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 weapons programs as the reason he voted to go to war," Bush said. Citing a Kerry quote from two years ago on the menace Hussein could pose, Bush said: "Just who's the one trying to mislead the American people?"
Meanwhile, Kerry has taken a slim lead over Bush, according to an Associated Press poll that shows the president's support tumbling on personal qualities, the war in Iraq and his bedrock campaign issue - national security.
Fewer voters than a month ago believe Bush is the best man to protect the country and fight the Iraq war.
The AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll showed a reversal from early September, when Bush had the momentum and a minuscule lead. Among 944 likely voters, Kerry-Edwards led Bush-Cheney 50 percent to 46 percent. The Oct. 4-6 survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The race was tied 47-47 percent among 1,273 registered voters, with a 2.5 point margin of error. Other polls show a tight race.