WASHINGTON – President Bush, bracing the nation for war, said Thursday night the United States will drive Saddam Hussein from power if it comes to military force — with or without support from France, Germany and other skeptical allies.
“I will not leave the American people at the mercy of the Iraqi dictator and his weapons,” Bush said at a prime-time news conference.
Bush said he had not decided whether to invade Iraq but that it was only a matter of days before a U.N. Security Council vote on a U.S.-backed resolution authorizing force. He said the United States wants the Security Council to vote even if the resolution appears likely to fail.
“It’s time for people to show their cards and let people know where they stand in relation to Saddam.” France, Germany, Russia and China say they oppose such a resolution.
“Our mission is clear in Iraq,” the president. “Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament. In order to disarm, it will mean regime change. I’m confident that we’ll be able to achieve that objective in a way that minimizes the loss of life.”
Bush said it was up to Saddam to avert war. “It’s his choice to make whether or not we go to war. He’s the person that can make the choice of war or peace. Thus far he’s made the wrong choice.”
The president’s news conference came on the eve of a crucial Security Council meeting. On Friday, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and his counterpart, Mohamed ElBaradei, will report on Iraq’s measure of cooperation in eliminating its banned weapons. Their assessment could weigh heavily in determining the outcome of the Security Council’s vote on a resolution to authorize force.
Before the news conference, Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about the U.N. resolution, White House aides said. They agreed to continue discussions.
Intensifying his case against Saddam, Bush is considering a major address next week to explain the justification and risks of military conflict, aides said. The speech could include a final warning to Saddam while urging journalists and humanitarian workers to leave Iraq, they said.
But officials said the president is not inclined to set an eleventh-hour deadline for Iraq’s disarmament, fearing Saddam would use the grace period to further divide U.S. allies. They did not rule out the United States backing a British proposal that would give the Iraqi leader a few more days to disarm. But aides acknowledged that the British proposal was unlikely to be a galvanizing force.
Bush has privately expressed frustration with Saddam’s ability to turn France and other allies against the resolution just a few months after a similar measure passed 15-0 in the Security Council, aides said.
Bush answered questions for about 40 minutes after making his case against Saddam in a 10-minute opening statement in the East Room.
Asked how his faith was guiding him through these deliberations, Bush said: “I pray daily, I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength.” He added that if he decides to send troops into war, “I would pray for their safety and I would pray for the safety of innocent Iraqi lives as well.”
Bush, growing teary-eyed, said it was a “humbling experience” to know that people he’s never met “have lifted me and my family up in prayer. It’s been a comforting feeling to know that.”
Turning to another foreign policy hot spot, Bush said the best way to deal with rising tensions with North Korea is to involve other nations in the region, such as China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
“I think the best way to deal with this is in multilateral fashion by convincing those nations that they must stand up to their responsibilities, along with the United States to convince Kim Jong Il that development of a nuclear arsenal is not in his nation’s interests,” Bush said.
Bush’s news conference was part of an intensifying campaign to prepare Americans for the possibility of a war that could be just days away. Military leaders say U.S. forces are now ready to strike Iraq.
More than 230,000 troops are now arrayed around Iraq and more are on the way, awaiting a final go-ahead from the president.
“If we have to use force, I think a lot of nations will be with us,” Bush said. Speaking particularly about France and Germany, Bush said, “We have a disagreement over how best to deal with Saddam Hussein. I understand that. Having said that, they’re still our friends.”
The president said the United States will call for a Security Council vote even if it appears certain that the U.S.-backed resolution will be defeated.
Bush left no doubt that the United States would remove Saddam from power if it comes to war. “We will disarm Iraq. And if we go to war, there will be a regime change and replacing this cancer inside of Iraq will be a government that represents the rights of all the people.”
The president said he still hopes that Saddam disarms or that he leaves Iraq on his own.