WASHINGTON — Taking military action against Iran could put President Bush on a collision course with Congress, leading Democrats and a Republican lawmaker cautioned Friday following Bush's threat of unspecified consequences for alleged Iranian meddling in Iraq.
It's been the consensus for months among the Democrats who hold the majority that Bush must get congressional authorization before any military strike.
But the authorization would be no easy sell. Two knowledgeable U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because intelligence on Iran is highly classified, said that the administration so far doesn't have "smoking-gun" evidence that could be used publicly to justify an air attack.
The presumed target of an attack would be camps in Iran where officials believe the Iranians are teaching Iraqi Shiite fighters how to fashion bombs that can destroy American armored vehicles.
The U.S. officials refused to discuss whether such evidence exists but can't be made public because doing so would betray intelligence sources and methods, or whether it hasn't been uncovered. Even with such evidence, however, the Democratic-controlled Congress could be hard to convince five years to the month after Vice President Dick Cheney kicked off the administration's public relations campaign against Saddam Hussein with a speech in Cincinnati.
Given the hindsight about the intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq, "I think you'll find a lot of skeptical Republicans, no less Democrats, on the Hill," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
At a press conference Thursday, Bush warned of unspecified "consequences" if Iran's alleged interference in Iraq continues. Several administration officials said that Vice President Cheney has advocated launching air strikes against targets in Iran if there's clear evidence of Iranian support for Shiite Muslim militants in Iraq.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared Friday to steer the administration toward requesting authorization.
"I doubt the President could or would do so without coming to Congress," he said. "Nevertheless, there are a number of wide-ranging actions he could be taking, primarily focusing on expanding diplomatic efforts to increase pressure on Iran."
Highlighting Democratic wariness of Bush, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia introduced a bill earlier this year that would prevent money from being used for a strike against Iran without congressional approval. Among the supporters of the bill is Reid, who's been saying for months that Bush doesn't have authority to strike Iran.
"If the opportunity arises to attach this legislation (to another bill), he would do it," said Kimberly Hunter, Webb's spokeswoman.
Should Bush simply pursue a strike against Iran without seeking congressional authorization, it would cause "an uproar over here. It would be a serious breach of (the limits on) executive power," said a military affairs aide to a Democratic senator.
Nevertheless, Bush and Vice President Cheney take a broad view of executive power, and it's unclear what consequences Bush would face if he were to take action without authorization.
Many on Capitol Hill said the reaction would depend largely on the provocation used as a rationale for an attack.
"We cannot and we must not allow recent history to repeat itself," Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, said of a potential strike against Iran in a February speech, citing the distrust stemming from the administration's push for war with Iraq, which was based on exaggerated claims and faulty intelligence.
An advisor for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), like Clinton a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, called for "tough, sustained, and direct diplomacy" with Iran. "While military force must remain an option, we must combine diplomacy with an aggressive effort to implement stronger sanctions to isolate Iran," said Susan Rice, a foreign policy advisor.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, some wonder why Washington is escalating its allegations of Iranian meddling.
"They (the U.S.) want to put the blame on Iran . . . for what's happening in Iraq," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator," adding that the harsh rhetoric is hindering Iraq's efforts at stability. "Even Syria they don't talk much about these days."
Othman also criticized his own government's Iran policy. While Iran espouses support for Iraq's Shiite-led government, Othman said, it also helps militias that act against the government. He criticized Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for traveling to Baghdad when his own government is in crisis.
Waleed al Hilli, a leading member of Maliki's Dawa party, said Iraq is trying to "build a bridge" between the U.S. and Iran.
"We refuse any involvement from any side about our relations with Iran or any other country," he said. "We've worked hard to avoid making Iraqi a base to attack Iran. We won't accept such a thing."
Even so, Hilli said, American accusations against Iran for supporting militiamen that attack U.S. troops are valid.
"These bombs kill their soldiers, and they have the right to defend," Hilli said.