Bush defends policy despite arms report

President, Cheney are `last two on planet who won't face truth about Iraq,' Kerry says

Election 2004

October 08, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush insisted yesterday that "we were right" to go to war in Iraq, despite findings by the top American weapons inspector that undercut his original rationale. But Democratic challenger John Kerry seized on the report to accuse Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of being "the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."

The conclusion by chief inspector Charles Duelfer that Iraq had not produced weapons of mass destruction for more than 10 years before the United States went to war threw the Bush re-election campaign on the defensive, although the president continued to insist that his decision to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was correct.

"The Duelfer report makes clear that much of the accumulated body of 12 years of our intelligence and that of our allies was wrong, and we must find out why and correct the flaws," Bush said at the White House.

Still, Bush asserted that "we were right to take action," because Hussein "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction."

"And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies. Saddam Hussein was a unique threat, a sworn enemy of our country, a state sponsor of terror, operating in the world's most volatile region."

Kerry attacks

Kerry, in Colorado, accused the president of leading the nation to war under false pretenses, creating new justifications for the invasion after the fact and continuing to be in denial about the postwar instability in Iraq.

"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," Kerry said.

Bush, at a campaign rally in Wisconsin, retorted by quoting a speech that Kerry made two years ago. In it, the Massachusetts senator suggested that Hussein might invade U.S. allies or let weapons of mass destruction "slide off to one group or another in a region where weapons are the currency or the trade."

"Now today, my opponent tries to say I made up reasons to go to war," Bush told supporters. "Just who's the one trying to mislead the American people?"

Both camps misstated or exaggerated some of Duelfer's findings, which largely reaffirmed tentative conclusions made before the war by two teams of United Nations inspectors, whose work was cut short by the U.S.-led invasion.

Bush's contention that Hussein could have passed weapons or information to terrorists did not fully square with Duelfer's testimony to the Senate on Wednesday after his report was released.

Asked if there was any evidence that Hussein had attempted or contemplated passing banned weapons to al-Qaida, Duelfer replied: "We saw nothing."

Bush's statement that Hussein was a "sworn enemy of the United States" obscured two key findings by Duelfer. While Hussein had waged war against the United States and attempted to assassinate Bush's father, Duelfer reported that at various points during the 1990s, Iraq had sought to improve relations with Washington, at times communicating through him when he was working as a top U.N. weapons inspector.

Duelfer also reported that Iran, which fought an eight-year war against Iraq in the 1980s, was the "pre-eminent motivator" for Hussein's ambition to rebuild his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

"The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary," the report said.

Kerry said that Duelfer vindicated the sanctions policy that the United Nations pursued against Iraq for more than a decade, telling reporters yesterday that "the report concluded that the inspections and the sanctions worked."

In fact, Duelfer concluded that the sanctions were unraveling to the point of being in "free fall" during the late 1990s as Hussein sought to exploit loopholes, manipulate the U.N. oil-for-food program and spin a web of corruption through bribes and concessions to countries, companies and even U.N. officials. In addition, he noted that sanctions had a devastating impact on Iraq's population.

Asked at Wednesday's hearing if a combination of sanctions and military pressure would have been enough to ensure the success of the inspections process in 2003, Duelfer expressed doubt.

"I don't think those conditions were sustainable," Duelfer said.

Duelfer contended that Hussein's willingness to allow inspectors into Iraq was based largely on his determination to break free of U.N. sanctions. Once sanctions were lifted, he concluded, Hussein "wanted to re-create Iraq's [weapons] capability, focusing on missiles, chemical weapons and incremental steps toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Bush defense

The chief inspector's views on Hussein's hope of eventually restarting his weapons program provided grist for Bush and Cheney to assert yesterday that the Iraqi leader posed a dangerous threat.

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