WASHINGTON—President Bush said Wednesday he would seek approval from Congress before taking military action against Saddam Hussein and would make his case for removing the Iraqi leader in a speech next week at the United Nations.
Calling Saddam a "serious threat," Bush said doing nothing about Iraq is "not an option for the United States."
Bush met for nearly an hour Wednesday with about two dozen leading members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, starting what he called an "open dialogue . . . about our future and how best to deal with it." The debate over how to proceed on Iraq, he said, is one that "the American people must hear, must understand."
The president's comments left no doubt that his drive to deal decisively with Saddam is now moving into higher gear and likely will dominate public affairs in the United States and globally. Bush expects to press Congress to vote on his Iraq plans before lawmakers adjourn Oct. 4 to campaign for November's elections, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Bush also announced he is ready to begin consulting other global leaders about Iraq.
The president will host British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the only world leader outside Israel who has backed Bush on Iraq without reservation, at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat on Saturday. He will discuss Iraq and other topics with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Monday in Detroit.
Bush said in the meantime he would be "on the phone to leaders of China and Russia and France," all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Many world leaders who have voiced reservations about Bush's plans for Iraq have called for him to seek authorization from the Security Council before launching any military strike.
Bush said he would spell out why he believes Saddam threatens world peace in a speech to the United Nations next Thursday, one day after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"I will first remind the United Nations that for 11 long years, Saddam Hussein has side-stepped, crawfished, wheedled out of any agreement he had made not to . . . develop weapons of mass destruction," Bush said, adding he will "call upon the world to recognize that he is stiffing the world.
"And I will lay out and I will talk about ways to make sure that he fulfills his obligations."
The president also promised "at the appropriate time, this administration will go to Congress to seek approval . . . necessary to deal with this threat." He said members of the administration would participate fully in congressional hearings on the issue.
Lawmakers welcomed Bush's comments, though some made clear they are not yet ready to endorse U.S. military action against Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Bush "began to make his case to us today, and we're hoping for more information and greater clarity in the days and weeks ahead."
But Daschle said no new information about the precise nature of the Iraqi threat came from the meeting, and he is not convinced that military action is the only course available.
"I don't think that the case has been made yet, but I think that over time it is possible that he could show us evidence and provide information compelling enough to expect the Congress, on a bipartisan basis, to support actions," Daschle said as he left the White House.
Daschle and other lawmakers raised many questions, among them:
_What new information does the administration have to prove Saddam poses a more urgent threat now than he has since his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War?
_How much might a war against Iraq cost? What kind of regime would follow Saddam's ouster?
_Would U.S. troops have to remain as an occupation force, and if so, how long?
_What role would U.S. allies play?
"This shouldn't be a unilateral action, nor should it be a unilateral U.S. financial responsibility," Daschle said later at the Capitol.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who views war as the only acceptable option, said the president gave no indication he would seek a resolution of support from the United Nations.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Saddam is part of a greater "threat around the world that we cannot ignore. To me, I think it is a part of the overall war on terror."
And House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said, "We've got to now have an argument made to the Congress and the American people, and it's got to be one that convinces a majority of Americans that this is something that we need to do."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., agreed the "case has to be made to the American people."
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said: "People aren't as far apart on this thing as a lot of people think. . . .
I don't see anybody saying `I will not support moving against Saddam at the end of the day.' I don't see people drawing those kinds of lines."
Later Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Capitol Hill for a confidential briefing with members of the Senate.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Rumsfeld did not go into details about the threat Saddam poses but did lay out three classes of U.S. intelligence: "What we do know, what we know we don't know, and what we don't know we don't know."
"I don't think anybody wants to go to war unless it's Pearl Harbor," Roberts said.
Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said "Saddam Hussein is not America's problem. He is the world's problem. Clearly, it would be a great deal more comforting for the American people if we were doing this as part of a coalition."
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that pushing to get U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq for unconditional inspections might help build international backing for later military action against Saddam's regime if Saddam prevents them from doing their work.
Powell lobbied for support of Bush's Iraq policy on the sidelines of a U.N. development and environment summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, pressing the general point that Iraq cannot be permitted to disregard the United Nations.
The secretary of state said no decision has been made on whether to seek the return of the inspectors, who were removed from Iraq in 1998 after years in which Baghdad tried to frustrate their work. But he said they would only go back to Iraq if permitted to go wherever they want and speak to whomever they wish.
"We cannot send them back under the conditions" of four years ago, he said.
Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney said U.N. inspections would be inadequate at best and would let Saddam buy more time to grow more dangerous.
Bush sidestepped the question from reporters at the White House on Wednesday, saying "the issue is not inspectors, the issue is disarmament."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Warren P. Strobel and James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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20020904 USIRAQ poll Highlights