WASHINGTON – Building a case for war against Iraq, President Bush said Tuesday night he has fresh evidence that Saddam Hussein seeks to “dominate, intimidate or attack” with weapons of mass destruction that he could share with terrorist allies. He pledged to “fight with the full force and might of the United States military,” if necessary, to disarm Iraq.
“A future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all,” Bush said in a State of the Union address delivered before Congress and broadcast live around the world.
For the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks transformed him into a wartime president, Bush faced the nation amid serious questions about his leadership. Most Americans don’t approve of his handling of the economy, polls indicate, and only a bare majority support his policies on Iraq – an area where the president enjoyed support of more than 80 percent a year ago.
The first half of Bush’s hour-long address was devoted to domestic policy, a reflection of his desire not to let Iraq overshadow a presidential agenda geared toward the 2004 re-election campaign. The heart of Bush’s package is his $674 billion plan to revive the economy and a $400 billion, 10-year proposal to overhaul Medicare, sprinkled with initiatives to combat AIDS, produce energy-efficient cars and give religious groups access to federal community service money.
After an address interrupted 77 times by applause, Democrats challenged Bush’s efforts both at home and abroad.
“Tonight, the president used all the right rhetoric, but he still has all the wrong policies,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Sen. Edward Kenned, D-Mass., said he would introduce a resolution requiring Bush to present “convincing evidence of an imminent threat” before sending troops to fight Iraq.
“Instead of rushing down the path to war with Iraq, the American people deserve a full debate,” Kennedy said in a written statement.
Bush offered no new evidence to support his charges, he said Secretary of State Colin Powell will go to the U.N. Security Council next Wednesday to present the U.S. case.
“We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him,” the president said. Key allies, including France and Germany, oppose military action in Iraq and want Bush to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time.
Hoping to sway reluctant allies, Bush presented a laundry list of Saddam’s alleged offenses, some of them newly revealed to the public. He said intelligence sources have reported that thousands of Iraqi personnel are at work hiding documents and materials from the U.N. weapons inspectors.
Specifically, Bush said Saddam has not accounted for up to 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agent and more than 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical weapons.
“If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning,” Bush said.
The speech was delivered amid intense security as lawmakers, Cabinet members, military leaders and Supreme Court justices gathered in the House chamber. Several hundred people massed on the Capitol lawn to protest Bush’s policies, ranging from a possible war in Iraq to his approach to health care.
The president described the nation as still recovering from recession, terrorist attacks, corporate scandals and stock market declines. “Our economy is recovering, yet it is not growing fast enough or strongly enough,” the president said.
He proposed spending new money for research to develop hydrogen powered cars and to tutor children of prison inmates. He also called for a new $600 million drug treatment program in which federal money could go to religious community service programs.
In a nod to his conservative backers, Bush called on Congress to ban a procedure critics call “partial-birth” abortions and human cloning.
While Osama bin Laden and other key terrorists still elude capture, the president said the United States has caught many key commanders of al-Qaida and suggested others had been killed – “met a different fate,” in his words.
Citing intelligence sources, secret communications “and statements by people now in custody,” Bush renewed his assertion that Saddam aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaida.
“Secretly, without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own,” Bush said.
Bush said Saddam has shown “his utter contempt” for the United Nations and must be brought to account unless he disarms.
“The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving,” the president said.
“If war is forced upon us, we will fight in a just cause and by just means sparing, in every way we can, the innocent. And if war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military and we will prevail,” he said.
Among his charges:
The British government has learned that Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Iraqi officials are hiding documents and materials, and intelligence officers are posing as scientists that inspectors are supposed to interview.
Three Iraqi defectors say Iraq had several mobile biological weapons labs in the 1990s that are now not accounted for.
“Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks, to build and keep weapons of mass destruction – but why? The only possible use he could have for those weapons is to dominate, intimidate or attack,” Bush said, warning that Saddam could “resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East.”
Next week, Powell will allege that not only was Iraq hiding chemical and biological weapons from U.N. inspectors but smuggling in technology for long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs, a senior U.S. official said.
“The world has waited 12 years for Iraq to disarm,” Bush said. “America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country, our friends and our allies.”
Bush did not repeat his assertion that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are an “axis of evil,” a phrase he coined in last year’s address. But he chided Iran for repressing its people and said North Korea has deceived the world about its nuclear ambitions.
Bush announced a federal center where all terrorism intelligence, foreign and domestic, will be analyzed. CIA Director George Tenet will oversee the operation, two administration officials said.
He proposed spending $6 billion to make vaccines against anthrax, botulism, Ebola and the plague more readily available.
He proposed a $15 billion plan for emergency AIDS relief in Africa, a “work of mercy” that he said would save millions of Africans from falling victim to the deadly virus.
Top GOP congressional leaders sounded eager to get to work on Bush’s legislative agenda. “We’re about to get this ball rolling,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. “We’re ready to go,” agreed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
In keeping with tradition, a guest box in the galleries overlooking the House chamber was filled with living testimonials to the president’s message.
This year’s roster of guests included six people who the White House said would benefit from Bush’s tax-cut proposal, two doctors described as hurt by high malpractice insurance costs and several people affiliated with aid organizations.
One gallery seat was to be left empty to symbolize “the empty place many Americans will always have” because of the September 2001 attacks, which led to last year’s war against the Taliban and allied al-Qaida.