Bush: Damaging blow as poll battle intensifies

"Wait until Charlie gets back with the final report," Mr Bush said in June, fending off reporters trying to get him to admit that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

Yesterday, "Charlie", aka Charles Duelfer, the chief US weapons inspector, did get back - and his report could send shockwaves though an election campaign in which the Iraq issue already dwarfs all others.

Mr Duelfer's main finding, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, was widely expected. But the thoroughness of the 1,000-page report, based on nine months of work by the Iraq Survey Group led by Mr Duelfer, is a massive blow to George Bush's rationale for going to war.

It is bound to be seized upon by John Kerry in his second debate with Mr Bush tomorrow as further proof that the President rushed to war without waiting for the facts.

In a clear bid to limit the damage, Mr Bush used a campaign appearance in the swing state of Pennsylvania yesterday to stress the "real risk", that Saddam would give weapons or know-how to terrorist groups. "This was a risk we could not afford to take," he declared.

Nonetheless, the President's record in office now looks less impressive than perhaps at any moment since the day in May 2003 when Mr Bush landed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln beneath a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished". Day after day, Mr Kerry hammers away at the gap between the President's rosy assertions and the bloody reality on the ground in Iraq.

One blow after another strike the President's credibility. First came the leak of an intelligence report commissioned by the CIA which suggested that Iraq might be sliding into civil war.

That was followed by the leaked speech of a senior CIA Middle East specialist, who said the agency had warned the White House before the war that an invasion would probably be followed by an insurgency and growing sympathy for radical Islam and its goals.

Next came Mr Bush's dismal showing in the first debate in Florida, when Mr Kerry at last turned the spotlight from 11 September and terrorism to the current disorder in Iraq. Within 48 hours, a long report in the New York Times showed how the administration deliberately played down the dissent of its own experts when it claimed Saddam had been purchasing aluminium tubes in order to build nuclear weapons.

Those revelations, combined with Mr Duelfer's conclusion yesterday that Saddam's nuclear programme between 1998 and 2003 had shrivelled from minimal to non-existent, make a mockery of the apocalyptic pre-war warning by Condoleezza Rice, the President's national security adviser, that if the US waited, the "smoking gun" proving Iraq's WMD threat might be "a mushroom cloud". This week, both Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and Paul Bremer, the former US administrator in post-war Baghdad, have added to the embarrassment. Mr Rumsfeld cast doubt on links between Saddam and al-Qa'ida, another justification for going to war, while the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority revealed how he had pressed, in vain, for more troops to stabilise Iraq.

The Duelfer report was not the only embarrassment for Bush yesterday. Another CIA report, leaked to the New York Times, is dubious that links existed between the Saddam regime and the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group has kidnapped and executed Westerners.

US charges that Iraq had relations with al-Qa'ida were largely based on claims that Saddam had sheltered al-Zarqawi followers. Now, even that assertion is being questioned.

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