BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi officials braced for war Saturday as President Bush prodded the United Nations to "show some backbone" by forcing Iraq to end its pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
While Bush stepped up pressure on both the United Nations and Congress to fall in line behind his hard-line policy, Iraqi leaders seemed resigned to the likelihood of a U.S. invasion. In meetings with a U.S. delegation in Baghdad, Iraqi officials said they do not see any way to avoid military conflict with the world's most powerful nation.
"Doomed if you do, doomed if you don't," said Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a top aide to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Aziz and other Iraqi officials expressed suspicion that even if Baghdad readmits U.N. weapons inspectors, Bush would find another reason to seek Saddam's ouster.
Aziz met Saturday with a small delegation led by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
The group defied the White House and went to Iraq to seek a way to avoid war.
During a two-hour meeting, Aziz suggested that Baghdad might be willing to readmit weapons inspectors as part of a deal that would remove the threat of a U.S. attack and end economic sanctions on Iraq.
U.S. officials have demanded the unconditional return of weapons inspections, with no negotiations.
"Enough is enough," Bush told reporters Saturday during a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. "Now is the time to deal with the problem."
With momentum seemingly on his side, Bush urged both the United Nations and Congress to join his call for action against Saddam.
"The U.N. will either be able to function as a peacekeeping body as we head into the 21st century, or it will be irrelevant. And that's what we are about to find out," Bush said. "This is a chance for the United Nations to show some backbone."
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Bush said Congress should "make it unmistakably clear" that the United States will no longer tolerate Iraq's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Bush, whose speech to the U.N. on Thursday softened international opposition to his plans, has support from Berlusconi, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
Echoing the comments of other world leaders, Berlusconi praised Bush for taking his case against Iraq to the United Nations.
"The United Nations cannot continue to see is image undermined and its solutions flaunted," the Italian leader added.
White House officials were still working out details of proposed resolutions at the U.N. and in Congress. Although Bush wants an endorsement from Congress before the U.N. decides its next move, some congressional Democrats want the U.N. to act first as a way to gauge international support for military action.
Iraq's reaction as the debate unfolds could determine the international mood about a U.S. invasion.
Saddam, who has proved a master of survival, appears to have three choices to confront the Bush administration's determination to oust him:
_Saddam could readmit the weapons inspectors without any limit.
That seems unlikely, since Iraqi officials regard the inspectors as little more than spies. And, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, Saddam has covertly continued to develop toxins, poison gas and ingredients for nuclear weapons.
_Saddam could play for time, drawing out negotiations on how much leeway the inspectors will have, as Baghdad has done often in the past.
_Or, Saddam could gird for war, banking that Bush might be halted at the last moment by domestic or international pressure.
For the moment, fatalism appears to be running high.
"We have to prepare ourselves for (war)," said Saddoun Hammadi, speaker of Iraq's largely rubber-stamp parliament.
Members of the U.S. delegation in Baghdad, which included former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota, said one of the goals of their trip is to send a message that Bush will not back down. They said they also told the Iraqis that if Bush launches a military operation, the American public would put aside its doubts and unite behind him.
"I told them Bush is serious," Abourezk said.
He quoted Aziz as replying: " `We understand that very well.' "
Members of the U.S. delegation, which was sponsored by the Institute for Public Accuracy, a liberal advocacy group, urged the Iraqi government to make a dramatic gesture that would make it more difficult for the White House to go ahead with its plans. The Iraqi response was non-committal.
Aziz, who served as Iraq's chief spokesman during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, indicated that the Iraqi regime had not yet decided on a course of action.
"We have to consider the situation very carefully," he told Rahall during a meeting in the palatial Council of Ministers Building. "We have to be cautious, and we have to consult with our friends."
Rahall said later that he was not optimistic after his first round of meetings in Iraq.
"It's not to say we were not heard, or that we will not have had an impact," he said upon his return to the al Rashid hotel in downtown Baghdad.
"But we were given no indication of a positive response."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.