WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush and his vice president
conceded yesterday 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 Saddam 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 Saddam 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 unapologetically 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 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.”

Duelfer found no formal plan by Saddam to resume WMD production,
but the inspector surmised that Saddam intended to do so if U.N.
sanctions were lifted. Bush seized upon that inference, using the
word “intent” three times in reference to
Saddam’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.

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
Saddam’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.

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