WASHINGTON—The Bush administration on Wednesday will launch a concerted effort to prepare the nation and the world for war with Iraq, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hinted Tuesday that Bush holds a trump card—new evidence that Iraq is close to developing a nuclear weapon.
Under pressure at home and abroad to justify a war against Iraq, President Bush will meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House on Wednesday morning to discuss Iraq. Later that day he will send Rumsfeld to a closed-door briefing on the subject for all 100 senators in a secure room inside the Capitol.
And next week Bush is expected to use a Sept. 12 speech at the United Nations to begin spelling out his grievances against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"I think you'll see that the president will pull all of these threads together," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters traveling with him to an international conference on development and the environment in Johannesburg, South Africa. "With respect to what the American position will be, the president will articulate it. He will articulate it fully in the very near future."
In another sign that the administration is ratcheting up its machinery to lay the groundwork for war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would present a position paper "within the next few weeks" spelling out the need for action against Saddam.
Blair played a similar role last fall in winning international support for the U.S.-led attack on the al-Qaida terrorist network and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. He issued a paper documenting their record that helped justify the U.S.-led invasion.
Blair said the case against Saddam would focus on "the nature of his regime" and his previous known stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld hinted that Bush has new information that Iraq is close to developing a nuclear weapon, but the defense secretary declined to elaborate.
"Oh, I think I'll leave that for the coming days and weeks," Rumsfeld said. "We know some other things, but those are the kinds of things that would come out if and when the president decides that he thinks it's appropriate."
Rumsfeld noted that U.N. weapons inspections after the 1991 Gulf War determined that Iraq had been far closer to producing a nuclear bomb than U.S. intelligence officials had believed at the time.
"To the extent that they have kept their nuclear scientists together and working on these efforts, one has to assume they have not been playing tiddly winks, that they have been focusing on nuclear weapons," he said.
Administration officials continue to insist that Bush has not decided how to deal with Iraq, but those assurances were drowned out last week by Vice President Dick Cheney's forceful case for military action. In two separate appearances, Cheney said the United States should act quickly to avoid the danger that Saddam will unleash weapons of mass destruction against the United States or its allies.
Cheney's assertion that Iraq is close to acquiring a nuclear weapon—and Rumsfeld's suggestion that Bush can back it up with evidence—contrasts sharply with the CIA's most recent public assessments of Baghdad's nuclear weapons development efforts.
In a report submitted to Congress in January, the CIA concluded that Iraq's nuclear weapons program "probably" consisted of "low-level theoretical" research and development.
In February, CIA Director George Tenet told a Senate committee that the spy agency's greatest near-term concern was the "possibility" that Iraq could obtain enriched uranium or plutonium with which to make a nuclear weapon. But a knowledgeable U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence has picked up no evidence that Iraq has succeeded in acquiring such materials.
The flurry of activity to begin building the case for military action came in response to growing criticism from Congress and from U.S. allies that the Bush administration appears ready to charge off to war precipitously.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers returned from their August break with nagging doubts about Bush's handling of the Iraq issue.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott on Tuesday joined a long list of lawmakers who have urged Bush to seek congressional support for any military action. Lott, a Mississippi Republican who backs Bush's hard-line stance on Iraq, said the White House has failed to present a convincing case for war.
"I do think that we're going to have to get a more coherent message together and make sure the American people understand the threat and what we may have to do," Lott told reporters.
Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, another senior Republican who sits on both the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, announced his opposition to immediate military action. At the same time, Roberts agreed with administration officials that Saddam is intent on improving his ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction.
"Does that mean you send 250,000 troops in the immediate future, I don't think so. We're strained and stressed in regards to the terrorist war," Roberts told reporters. "We have to explain it to the American people."
Roberts said his extended visit to his home state convinced him that Americans are not prepared for another Persian Gulf War.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., just back from Europe, said she detected growing opposition to the United States among America's allies. "The driver of a lot of this animus," she said, "is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To leave this unresolved and to attack an Arab country is going to be viewed as an attack on the Arab world."
She said the anti-American sentiment was so strong that she felt it personally.
"As an American, I have always been proud," Feinstein said. "I have a (U.S. flag) pin. I was embarrassed to wear it."
Powell acknowledged that the administration's inner councils are split by differing opinions over Iraq.
"Some are real, some are perceived, some are over-hyped," Powell said, but he sought to dismiss any notion of paralysis or gridlock over Iraq.
"The only position that really counts at the end of the day is the president's," Powell said. "And we are all working hard and we're all working in harmony to make sure the president has the very best information, and all the different insights within his Cabinet can be brought to bear on this so he can make the best decision."
Powell, in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. to be broadcast this weekend, called for U.N. weapons inspectors to be returned to Iraq, if only as a first step toward dealing with the threat from Baghdad.
That seemed to contradict Cheney, who dismissed the idea of new inspections, because Iraq would never permit itself to be disarmed.
Powell said Bush has not yet decided whether to seek fresh United Nations' authorization for military action or other steps against Iraq, as some foreign policy heavyweights have suggested. "Obviously, all of that is in the mix," he said.
Bush administration efforts to gain support for a military strike to topple Saddam have had little success. Virtually every European ally other than Britain has expressed opposition to an unprovoked U.S. attack, a position echoed by key Middle East nations such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Powell said he spent much time on the telephone with foreign counterparts last week, exchanging views on Iraq.
"When you're consulting, you have to listen to everything. You listen to the positive responses and the negative responses," he said.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.