The administration's argument that Iraq was a grave threat even without stocks of illicit weapons and warranted a preemptive military attack centers on the answer to this question: Did Saddam Hussein intend to restart his weapons programs if the crippling U.N. sanctions were lifted? Or, as President Bush put it yesterday, "once the world looked away."

Charles A. Duelfer, the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, found no plans and no existing capability to restart these programs, and he said in his report released Wednesday that divining Hussein's intention "is like having the picture box cover of a jigsaw puzzle to guide the assembly of the component puzzle pieces."

But, Duelfer concluded: "Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq's WMD capacity."

Duelfer based his conclusion about Hussein's intentions on the Iraqi leader's past actions; on post-invasion interviews with Hussein, his inner circle and weapons scientists; and on the type of industrial equipment the Iraqi government imported and maintained.

"Most senior members of the regime and scientists assumed that the programs would begin in earnest when sanctions ended," Duelfer said. "And sanctions were eroding." Others counter that sanctions had disrupted Iraq's weapons efforts and that there was no consensus at the United Nations for lifting them before the March 2003 invasion.

Referring to Hussein's view of himself, weapons of mass destruction and his country, Duelfer said: "What seems clear is that WMD was a tool of power or leverage that varied in its utility in advancing toward his goals for himself and Iraq."

Hussein's top goal was to defend Iraq against Iran. The neighbors had fought an eight-year war, and Iraq had used tens of thousands of chemical weapons to repel Iranian fighters.

"Saddam argued Iraqi WMD development, while driven in part by the growth of Iranian capabilities, was also intended to provide Iraq with a winning edge against Iran," the report noted.

Nuclear weapons were no longer Hussein's top priority, although he still aspired to have a nuclear capability, Duelfer said. Hussein was more keen on developing ballistic missiles and tactical chemical weapons suited for a battle with Iran.

Duelfer drew many of his conclusions from interviews with Hussein's top advisers and military leaders conducted while they were detained after the invasion.

"Many former Iraqi officials close to Saddam either heard him say or inferred that he intended to resume WMD programs when sanctions were lifted," the report noted. "Those around him at the time do not believe that he made a decision to permanently abandon WMD programs."

For example, former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz told interrogators that "Saddam never formally stated this intention," but that Hussein "did not believe other countries in the region should be able to have WMD when Iraq could not."

Abd Tawab Mullah Huwaysh, director of the Military Industrial Organization, which was the primary agency responsible for developing weapons of mass destruction, "speculated" to investigators that Hussein had increased funding to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, and took an interest in its achievement because he wanted to restart the nuclear program and would need the commission's scientists and staff.

Since 1991, the report noted, Hussein had ordered advisers to keep Iraq's nuclear scientists fully employed, and they made arrangements to do so.

In interviews, Hussein "made clear his view that nuclear weapons were the right of any country that could build them," the report noted. "He was very attentive to the growing Iranian threat, especially its potential nuclear component, and he stated that he would do whatever it took to offset the Iranian threat, clearly implying matching Tehran's nuclear capabilities.

"Saddam observed that India and Pakistan had slipped across the nuclear weapons boundary quite successfully," it added.

But Huwaysh also quoted Hussein as saying: "We do not intend or aspire to return to our previous programs to produce WMD, if the Security Council abides by its obligations. . . ." Huwaysh did not specify whether that meant the lifting of U.N. sanctions.

At the time of the U.S.-led invasion, Duelfer said, Iraq had no active programs for chemical or biological weapons, but had industrial equipment that could have been used to help restart the efforts.

On chemical weapons, Duelfer said, "Iraq would have been able to produce mustard agents in the period of months, and nerve agent in less than a year or two" using the existing chemical infrastructure. The report, however, found "no explicit guidance from Saddam on this point" and no other plans to do that.

On biological weapons, Hussein abandoned his program in 1995 but retained the scientists and other technicians "needed to restart a potential biological weapons program," the report noted. Although there was no proof of efforts to rebuild his anthrax programs, "given the developing infrastructure in Iraq in the late 1990s and early 2000, such a reconstitution could be accomplished quite quickly."

On missiles, "Iraq's investments in technology and infrastructure improvements, an effective procurement network, skilled scientists, and designs already on the books for longer range missiles" clearly indicated that Hussein "intended to reconstitute long-range delivery systems and that the systems potentially were for WMD."

Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.