WASHINGTON—President Bush said Wednesday he would "keep all options available" to deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, apparently including military strikes.
Bush's language, during a news conference with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, sent a fresh signal to Saddam that the United States might act unilaterally to topple his regime.
Senior U.S. officials told Knight Ridder this week that Bush has decided to remove Saddam from power and has ordered the Pentagon, the CIA and other agencies to come up with ways to do it.
Discussions over what action to take, and when, are under way within the U.S. government, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. And Bush will act alone if necessary, they said.
Bush said Wednesday that Saddam "needs to understand I'm serious about defending our country."
Standing next to Musharraf in the White House, Bush repeated his State of the Union warning that "there are some nations in the world which develop weapons of mass destruction with one intention, and that is to hold America hostage and or harm Americans and or our friends and allies."
The president said he would work with other nations to pressure such foes.
"But make no mistake about it," he added, "if we need to, we will take necessary action to defend the American people.
"And I think that statement was clear enough for Iraq to hear me. And I will reserve whatever options I have. I'll keep them close to my vest."
Bush reiterated his concern that some countries, such as Iraq, might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists bent on harming Americans.
That concern appears to be part of the reason behind the stepped-up planning for the ouster of Saddam's regime.
The officials told Knight Ridder that Bush is likely to first demand that Saddam allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq, where they have not been for more than three years. If Iraq refuses, or blocks the inspectors' work, U.S. military action may follow.
During his State of the Union address last month, Bush lumped Iraq with Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil."
The president said he intends to "make it clear to these nations they've got a choice to make. And I'll keep all options available if they don't make the choice."
In the last few days, administration officials have sought to single out Iraq, saying they still see opportunities for dialogue with Iran and North Korea, but not with Baghdad.
Bush's tough rhetoric has prompted complaints from a handful of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. They have questioned whether Bush's bellicose tone could undermine reformers in Iran, and insisted on knowing whether the president is preparing to send the United States into a new conflict.
"There's a bit too much loose talk on the subject," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a leading proponent of Saddam's ouster, told the Senate Budget Committee in testimony on Wednesday.
"I think we would all agree that countries that are hostile to us and are developing weapons capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people are a serious problem," Wolfowitz said. "It seemed a bit theoretical before Sept. 11. It's not theoretical at all anymore."
(c)2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.