WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) on Thursday defended his decision to oust Saddam Hussein (search) by force, saying a report concluding that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction after 1991 supported the idea that Saddam was a growing threat.
Sen. John Kerry (search), who has been preparing for Friday's debate in Colorado, almost immediately went on the offensive against Bush's statements, saying Bush and Cheney "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."
For Bush, his decision to go to war with Iraq and the questions surrounding his justification for ousting Saddam have become the highest profile issues in the presidential campaign.
"The Duelfer report shows that Saddam was systematically gaming the system," Bush said outside the White House, before leaving for Wisconsin for a rally and then to St. Louis for the second presidential debate. Bush added that the deposed leader had the "intent of restarting his weapons program when the world looked away."
But Kerry, the Democratic presidential challenger, said that the report "underscores the failure of this administration's diplomacy — they only have one attitude and that attitude isn't making America safer."
It concludes that whatever ambitions Saddam may have had for his weapons of mass destruction — generally defined as nuclear, biological or chemical arms — were secondary to his desire to end U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.
The report also concludes that Saddam wanted WMDs not to attack the United States or to share them with terrorists, but to deter his old enemies Iran and Israel.
It says that Saddam was intent on "preserving the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction when sanctions were lifted."
Bush said Thursday that while Saddam may not have had the sought-for weapons, the former Iraqi dictator "retained the knowledge, the material, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction and he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies."
The Iraq Survey Group report states it is possible Iraqi WMDs were transported elsewhere, for example neighboring Syria, for safekeeping.
Saddam Hussein posed a "unique threat" to the world, Bush added. "In the world after Sept. 11, he [Saddam] was a threat we had to confront, and America and the world are safer for our actions."
The president admitted, however, that the Iraq Survey Group report makes clear that 12 years of U.S. and allied intelligence on Iraq was wrong, and that "we must correct the flaws."
Kerry, on the other hand, in his strongest statements yet on the issue, suggested that Bush's continuing failure to recognize the severity of problems in Iraq would mean that if the Massachusetts senator takes office in January he will face a situation as chaotic as the Middle East in the early 1980s.
"I don’t know what I'm going to find on January 20 the way the president's going," he said during the news briefing. "If the president just does more of the same every day and it continues to deteriorate, I may be handed Lebanon, figuratively speaking."
Asked by one reporter if he would commit more troops if elected, Kerry said he would take the advice of military generals on the ground, the same act that Bush says he would take. Kerry said that "in the next days," he will further outline his plan for Iraq if he's elected commander in chief.
"I will make certain that our troops are protected. I will hunt down and kill the terrorists and I will make sure we're successful," Kerry said. "And I know exactly what we're going to do and how we're going to do it."
Bush, at a late afternoon rally in Wisconsin, described his rival's words as "overheated rhetoric." Bush dismissed Kerry's complaint that the administration exaggerated its main rationale for war and said Kerry was trying to have it both ways. "Just who's the one trying to mislead the American people?"
Cheney: War With Iraq Justified
Bush's comments echoed those of Vice President Dick Cheney (search ) earlier Thursday.
The report shows that "delay, defer, wait wasn't an option," Cheney told a town hall-style meeting.
While Democrats pointed to the Duelfer report to bolster their case that invading Iraq was a mistake, Cheney focused on portions that were more favorable to the administration's case.
"The headlines all say no weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in Baghdad. We already knew that," Cheney said.
He said other parts of the report were "more intriguing."
Cheney's comments reflect a GOP strategy to use portions of the report, including abuses of Iraq's "fuel for food" program, to try to move discussion away from the central conclusions on the absence of weapons of mass destruction.
Although the report says Saddam Hussein's weapons program had deteriorated since the 1991 Gulf War and did not pose a threat to the world in 2003, it also says 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.
The vice president said the report concluded that the United Nations' "Fuel for Food" program "was totally corrupted by Saddam Hussein. There were suggestions employees of the United Nations were part of the scheme as well."
"The suggestion is clearly there by Mr. Duelfer that Saddam had used the program in such a way that he had bought off foreign governments and was building support among them to take the sanctions down," Cheney said.
Thus there was no reason to wait to invade Iraq to give inspectors more time to do their work, Cheney said.
"The sanctions regime was coming apart at the seams," Cheney told a later forum in Fort Myers. "Saddam perverted that whole thing and generated billions of dollars. ... He used the funds to corrupt others."
The new GOP strategy contained some risks to Bush: Some of the countries possibly implicated in wrongdoing in the program include U.S. allies in Iraq, particularly Poland, as well as Russia — countries the administration does not want to alienate.
On Wednesday, the former head of the U.N. weapons inspection team, Hans Blix (search ), said: "Had we had a few months more [of inspections before the war], we would have been able to tell both the CIA and others that there were no weapons of mass destruction [at] all the sites that they had given to us."
On another topic, Cheney said that this weekend's elections in Afghanistan could be rocky.
"It will be difficult. There will be attacks on polling places. Remnants of the old Taliban regime don't want those elections to succeed," Cheney said. But he predicted that democracy would prevail in what he said was "the first election in Afghanistan in 5,000 years."
FOX News' Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.