WASHINGTON—War with Iraq appeared all but inevitable Wednesday as the Bush administration launched the "final phase" of consultations with hesitant allies and political foes, and United Nations members planned the equivalent of a war council.
With U.S. troops streaming toward the Persian Gulf, President Bush said:
"History has called the United States into action, and we will not let history down."
A U.S.-led war on Iraq could start as early as the beginning of March, several senior administration officials said, and the White House flashed war signals on many public fronts.
"It certainly feels around here as if the preposition has changed from `if' to `when,'" one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about the widespread feeling that Bush has chosen war. "It certainly feels like there's a green light."
Speaking one day after his State of the Union address, Bush ratcheted up his rhetoric about the threat posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"He is a danger not only to countries in the region, but, as I explained last night, because of al-Qaida connections, because of his history, he's a danger to the American people, and we've got to deal with him," the president said during a speech in Grand Rapids, Mich. "We've got to deal with him before it is too late."
Other top U.S. officials said that before acting alone or with a few allies, they would wait weeks—but not months—for the United Nations to put teeth into its threat of "serious consequences" for Saddam if he fails to disarm peacefully.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his strongest effort yet to justify pre-emptive military action on moral grounds, even while conceding that Americans traditionally have believed that "unless attacked, one does not attack."
"The question, though, is, in the 21st century—with biological weapons, for example, that could kill hundreds of thousands of people—what does one do?" he asked. "Does one wait until they're attacked?"
Rumsfeld argued that, even with its best spy technology, the United States may never gain "perfect knowledge" of what Saddam may be up to.
"The only way you get personal knowledge is to wait until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor," he said. "That's when you get perfect knowledge." By then it's too late, so a pre-emptive strike is justified, he suggested.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell again invited Saddam to end the crisis quietly by accepting life in exile. "We would help try to find a place for him to go," Powell said.
Few experts think Saddam would leave power voluntarily, but the increased talk of it was another signal that Washington was moving closer to invading.
In Baghdad, Saddam appeared on television to express his defiance. "We will absorb the momentum of the attack, destroy it and defeat it," he said.
The White House confirmed that Powell, in a moment of high drama next Wednesday, will give the United Nations evidence that Iraq continues to conceal and develop weapons of mass destruction. The foreign ministers of many U.N. Security Council nations are expected to attend the session, in effect creating an international war council.
Powell also is expected to present evidence concerning Iraqi ties with terrorists and to detail alleged Iraqi efforts to undermine and manipulate the U.N. inspections process.
Powell, who met Wednesday with Pakistan's foreign minister at the State Department, said he would offer "new information" that was "not relevant to the inspectors' work," but nonetheless illuminated Iraq's banned weapons programs.
Additional information, Powell said, "will be an expansion" of past U.S. presentations. Others described the data as more of a mosaic than a single "smoking gun."
American officials told Knight Ridder that the Iraqis have ordered scientists to hide evidence of their work on chemical and biological weapons and have bugged U.N. inspectors' rooms and communications systems. They said some translators and other Iraqis who worked for the United Nations were Iraqi agents.
On at least one occasion, U.S. surveillance photographed trucks speeding away from an inspection site shortly before U.N. inspectors arrived, suggesting that their visit had been learned in advance, and perhaps that contraband material was spirited away.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "The inspection regime has been thoroughly compromised."
Such information, if shared in detail with the United Nations, could prove influential and help the United States obtain broader backing for an attack on Iraq.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this week that although his nation had worked for a peaceful solution, it might change its position if Iraq was shown to be hampering inspectors.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, said his nation expected Powell to present "undeniable proof" that Iraq wasn't cooperating with arms inspectors.
The accelerating prewar diplomatic campaign was scheduled to move to the White House on Thursday and to Camp David on Friday, where Bush will hold crucial meetings, first with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday in Washington, then with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday at the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Both leaders, particularly Blair, have been sympathetic to Bush's position. The president also is expected to meet with other foreign leaders in the days ahead, while American envoys are dispatched overseas to speak with traditional but now hesitant allies.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the European leader most critical of U.S.-led military action, said Wednesday that only the Security Council should determine whether an invasion of Iraq was warranted.
French diplomats made similar statements at the United Nations, but the United States appeared to receive some support there from Spanish Ambassador Inocenio Arias. The Bush administration said Spain had signaled that it would join a "coalition of the willing" in a fight against Iraq.
Arias argued that weapons inspectors should be given "a short time" to continue, but said he was "completely skeptical about the good will of the Iraqi regime."
According to those familiar with administration thinking, Bush sees no point in continuing with U.N. weapons inspections that he believes are deeply flawed and will never work unless Iraq fully cooperates.
The president, his aides said, also does not believe he needs a second U.N. resolution authorizing force against Iraq, because the resolution approved in November—after seven weeks of negotiations—already states that implicitly.
But, they said, he is open to the possibility of seeking another U.N. resolution next week or soon thereafter, depending on the possibilities there.
The Bush administration expects Iraq to make an 11th-hour attempt to stave off war, perhaps via a sudden acknowledgement by Saddam of weapons programs and materials that Iraq previously has denied having.
British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock equated the debate over Iraqi compliance to "waiting for the drips to fill the glass, the drips that may not come.
"The question is, does Iraq realize that the game is up or doesn't it?"
On Capitol Hill, Democratic senators introduced resolutions Wednesday that would require Bush to seek new congressional authority or U.N. support to use force to disarm Iraq. Each resolution faces long odds. When the Senate gave the president authority to use force in October, 77 senators voted in favor, knowing Bush could act with or without the United Nations' backing.
"There is time for thoughtful deliberation about whether war now is the right priority for our nation," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "We in Congress have a responsibility to the Constitution and the American people to act again on this all-important issue of war and peace."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Bush "appears to place himself above the international mandates of the United Nations," and called on him to get authorization for war from the Security Council.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ron Hutcheson, Tom Infield, James Kuhnhenn, Daniel Rubin and Peter Smolowitz contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Bush