Bush concedes Iraq lacked WMD

But he has refused to concede that it was wrong to go to war in Iraq.

“Based on all the information we have to date, I believe we were right to take action, and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison,” Mr Bush said in a statement as he departed the White House.

The remarks were the president’s first since the release of a report by the chief US weapons inspector in Iraq, Charles Duelfer.

Mr Duelfer headed up the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) of 1,200 experts from Britain, the US and Australia to investigate the existence of WMD stockpiles in Iraq from May 2003.

The ISG found that Saddam had destroyed most of his chemical and biological weapons after his 1991 Gulf War defeat and that his nuclear program had “progressively decayed”.

That conclusion, along with the finding from other official probes that there is no evidence of a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, has left Washington’s case for the war in Iraq substantially weakened.

President Bush’s allies have been quick to defend their involvement in the Iraq war.

The British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said the ISG report highlighted Saddam’s intention and capability to produce WMD and argued that the so-called containment of the former leader through UN-imposed sanctions was proving insufficient.

In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said he stood by his decision to go to war and had no regrets about Saddam’s removal from power.

In a new twist, the report has revealed Saddam Hussein attempted to influence foreign powers by using the United Nations’ food-for-oil program to buy favours and get sanctions against Iraq lifted.

French businessman Patrick Maugein was named as one who received payments from Saddam’s government under the belief he had access to French President Jacques Chirac.

Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua was said to have received export vouchers for almost 11 million barrels of oil, and the Iraqi-French Friendship Society vouchers for 10 million barrels.

France has dismissed the allegations as unverified.

The ISG report also pointed to the Russian Communist Party, Russia’s foreign ministry and nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky as the recipients of lucrative oil contracts.

Money was also directed to major Russian oil and gas companies including Gazprom, Lukoil and Yukos.

The revelations have prompted Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, to demand immediate access to UN internal audits.

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