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President defends Iraq war rationale

Cites arms capability, downgrades early peril

WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday countered mounting criticism of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by declaring that even without stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein possessed ''the capability of producing weapons of mass murder" and could have passed the technology along to terrorists if the United States and its allies had not acted to stop him.

Bush, however, portrayed the danger as largely hypothetical, effectively downgrading the threat posed by Iraq before the US-led invasion. And in a rare admission, the president acknowledged that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

''Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq," Bush told an audience at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where some components of nuclear materials from Libya are being held. ''We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them."

Bush continued, ''Today, because America and our coalition helped to end the violent regime of Saddam Hussein, and because we're helping to raise a peaceful democracy in its place, the American people are safer."

Debate over the rationale for war has regained the national spotlight in recent days as the presidential campaign has accelerated -- especially after the Senate Intelligence Committee report last week indicating that intelligence about Iraq's weapons capabilities was exaggerated before the war. Although the Senate report focused blame on the Central Intelligence Agency, Democrats have faulted the Bush administration, saying it pressured intelligence analysts to reach a foregone conclusion about Iraq and failed to question the analyses before declaring war.

The criticism by Democratic lawmakers of the intelligence, on which many based their decision to authorize the president to use military force, has been echoed in recent days by polls indicating that a growing number of voters have doubts about the reasons for going to war. Several recent polls suggest that more than half the electorate believes the war in Iraq has made the United States less safe. With continued US military deaths in Iraq, polls also suggest an increasing number of voters are questioning whether the war has been worth the lives lost. Senator John F. Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, yesterday dismissed the president's contention that deposing the Iraqi dictator has improved US security.

''It's not enough just to give speeches. America will only be safer when we get results," Kerry told reporters in Boston. ''The facts speak for themselves: In the two years since 9/11, less nuclear materials have been secured than in the two years prior to 9/11."

Bush, after touring the weapons laboratory in Tennessee, sought to prove the opposite point, arguing that the invasion of Iraq put pressure on Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy to relinquish his weapons programs last year and rejoin the world community. ''Every potential adversary now knows that terrorism and proliferation carry serious consequences and that the wise course is to abandon those pursuits," Bush said. ''By choosing that course, the Libyan government is serving the interests of its own people and adding to the security of all nations."

Members of the former Clinton administration have argued that Libya was on its way toward reconciling with the West long before Sept. 11, 2001, or the invasion of Iraq. But their toughest criticism yesterday was reserved for Bush's remark that even without a weapons arsenal, Iraq was enough of a threat to warrant invasion.

By conceding that Hussein maintained only the capability to build a weapons program -- not the weapons themselves -- Bush undermined his own argument that no time could be lost in building a broader UN coalition, said Samuel Berger, former Clinton national security adviser.

''The difference between capacity and weapons is the difference between an immediate danger and a long-term danger," Berger said. ''If Saddam had the weapons, he was an immediate danger. If Saddam had the capacity, that means he, over some period of time, could have reconstituted his weapons programs -- at some future moment, he could have been a threat. And that goes very much to why we acted when we did and in the way we did."

In essence, by admitting that Hussein simply had the capacity to develop weapons, Berger said, Bush is confirming that ''we had more time to build a coalition."

''We had more time to get allies, we had more time to let the inspections process go forward," Berger said, ''and we had more time to plan for what we would do after Saddam fell."

Former CIA counterterrorism specialist Vincent Cannistraro agreed that the mere risk that Iraq would build weapons of mass destruction did not equal the danger of a nuclear-armed state. ''Having the 'capability' doesn't really mean anything, because if you have enough money, theoretically, you have the capability" to buy weapons of mass destruction, Cannistraro said. ''But if you start invading every country that has the capability, that just means endless war. It doesn't make much sense to say he [Saddam Hussein] had the wherewithal to do it if he wanted to do it . . . Theoretically, Saudi Arabia has the capability, because they have the money, too."

The danger Iraq posed before the US-led invasion is still a matter of strong debate. The Senate committee report that was issued Friday found that ''most of the major key judgments . . . either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting" before the invasion.

Democrats sought to remind the public that Bush expressed no doubts about the intelligence he was provided, even after the Iraq invasion did not immediately yield evidence of weapons of mass destruction. In an appearance with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan one year ago, Bush dismissed early questions about his intelligence gathering.

''I think the intelligence I get is darned good intelligence," Bush said in that Oval Office appearance.

Bush continued: ''I believe, firmly believe, that when it's all said and done, the people of the United States and the world will realize that Saddam Hussein had a weapons program . . . The larger point is, and the fundamental question is: Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely."

Patrick Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Boston. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com. 

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