US President George W. Bush and his Vice-President conceded on 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 Saddam was abusing a UN oil-for-food programme.
Vice-President Dick Cheney brushed aside the central findings of chief US weapons hunter Charles Duelfer - that Saddam not only had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and had not made any since 1991, but that he had no capability of making any either - while Mr Bush unapologetically defended his decision to invade Iraq.
'The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the UN oil-for-food programme to try to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions,' he said as he prepared to fly to campaign events in Wisconsin. 'He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons programme once the world looked away.'
Mr Duelfer found no formal plan by Saddam to resume WMD production, but the inspector surmised that Saddam intended to do so if UN sanctions were lifted. Mr 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 programme as an Iraq war rationale. But the strategy holds risks because some of the countries that could be implicated include US allies, such as Poland, Jordan and Egypt. In addition, the United States itself played a significant role in both the creation of the programme and how it was operated and overseen.
For his part, Mr Cheney dismissed the significance of Mr Duelfer's central findings, telling supporters in Miami they already knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in Baghdad.
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.