WASHINGTON—President Bush said Saturday that war with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may be unavoidable, but he pledged in the clearest terms yet that the United States would help Iraq rebuild and form a new government.
Previewing a major address he will give from Cincinnati on Monday night, Bush sought to dispel the notion his administration is seeking a fight with Iraq and instead shifted the blame to Saddam.
"The United States does not desire military conflict, because we know the awful nature of war," the president said in his weekly radio address. But if Iraq continues to defy United Nations' demands for disarmament, "the use of force may become unavoidable," he said.
In that case, Bush said, "the United States will work with other nations to help the Iraqi people rebuild and form a just government. We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people."
Bush has been criticized, including by Iraqi exiles who seek to overthrow Saddam, for failing to address Iraq's 25 million people or make a commitment to assist the country after a U.S. invasion. What some consider a half-hearted U.S. commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan has fanned those fears.
A top White House aide said Bush's speech Monday at 8 p.m. EDT will launch a new phase of his campaign to unseat Saddam by speaking to the Iraqi people, promising to liberate them from decades of brutality and oppression.
The president will emphasize in his address that the United States will change Iraq's government "one way or another" but does not seek to dominate or occupy the country, said the aide, Zalmay Khalilzad.
"We will not enter Iraq as conquerors," but as "liberators," Khalilzad told a conference in Leesburg, Va., sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The administration has not decided on what kind of government would replace Saddam's, Khalilzad said, but the hope is for a "broad-based and representative government that would renounce terror, give all religious and ethnic groups a voice and have no weapons of mass destruction."
Khalilzad, who is also Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, said the United States and its coalition partners—who he did not name—would protect Iraq's borders and ensure it remains a united country. "We will put Iraq on a path of economic prosperity," he said.
Bush's speech comes as both houses of Congress prepare for votes on resolutions that would give him broad war-making authority against Iraq.
The administration also is struggling to win approval of a tough new U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Iraq divest itself of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or face the consequences. In his radio address, Bush voiced the hope that the votes in Congress "will help spur the United Nations to act."
Bush was more bellicose in appearances later Saturday in Manchester, N.H., where he stumped for Republican Senate candidate John Sununu.
"There's no negotiations. There's nothing to talk about. We don't want you to have weapons of mass destruction. . . . Now you've got to show the world you don't have them," he told Saddam.
Arguing that the threat from Iraq is growing and that Saddam has a history of striking without warning, Bush told flag-waving supporters: "We must not ignore reality. We must do everything we can to disarm this man before he hurts one single American."
Bush was spending the weekend at his parents' vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he and aides reviewed the speech. His father, the former president, was also at the compound.
Meanwhile, the White House announced that Bush will meet on Oct. 16 with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel is considered a likely target of Iraqi retaliation if U.S. forces invade. Top Sharon aides have said that Israel reserves the right to retaliate if it's attacked by Iraqi missiles, a move that would complicate U.S. war plans.
Gen. Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told the conference in Virginia that Israeli retaliation for an Iraqi attack "would not be automatic," however.
Israel's reaction would depend on the severity of the attack and whether Saddam used chemical or biological weapons, Mofaz said. "There is a difference between conventional and non-conventional weapons," he said, "and whether they damage Israel or not."
If Israel did decide to retaliate, it would do so in coordination with the United States, he said.
Mofaz said the Bush administration has gone too far in its public statements to back down from military action against Saddam. "The United States has reached the point of no return," he said. "It appears the United States has made the decision to act against Iraq."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.