WASHINGTON – President Bush on Thursday defended his decision to oust Saddam Hussein 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.
"The Duelfer report shows that Saddam was systematically gaming the system," Bush said during a press conference Thursday, adding that the deposed leader had the "intent of restarting his weapons program when the world looked away."
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."
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.