Bush vows to consult allies, Congress about Iraq

David Jackson - The Dallas Morning News (KRT) (The Ok

CRAWFORD, Texas _ Faced with a growing number of critics of possible military action against Iraq, President Bush said Wednesday that “regime change is in the interests of the world” but is not necessarily imminent.

“We will obviously continue to consult with our friends and allies,” Bush said when asked whether the United States is prepared to go after Iraq alone. He would also consult with Congress before taking any action against Iraq, Bush told reporters on his ranch after a defense meeting with top military aides.

Calling himself “a patient man,” Bush said he would be deliberate and consider a variety of options in challenging Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“We will look at all options and we will consider all technologies available to us, and diplomacy and intelligence,” he said.

Aside from traditional allies in Britain and Israel, a growing number of countries have said they would not support military action against Iraq. They include Iraq’s Middle East neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as Japan, Canada and members of the European Union.

While aides said there is often a difference between what foreign leaders say publicly and privately, Bush appeared to confront some of the more outspoken naysayers.

Although some countries are urging the United States to press for United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq, Bush said he does not believe that Saddam “is willing to forgo weapons of mass destruction, is willing to be a peaceful neighbor.”

“He hasn’t convinced me,” Bush said. “Nor has he convinced my administration.”

Plans to remove Saddam did not surface during the defense meeting, Bush said, almost mocking what he and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called media-driven “frenzy” that is premature at best.

With Rumsfeld at his side, in a business suit, a khaki-clad Bush said of Iraq: “I know there is this kind of intense speculation that seems to be going on, a kind of a _ it’s kind of a churning. … But the subject didn’t come up.”

While Bush and his military aides discussed a 21st-century transformation of the Pentagon, much of the rest of the world is arguing a more immediate question: How and when will the president fulfill his pledge to remove Saddam from power?

Debaters range from hawks who want to remove Hussein now, citing his development of weapons of mass destruction, to allies who say that action will only create more problems in the Middle East and who support diplomatic pressure.

Foreign-policy analysts said the administration has contributed to the frenzy on Iraq by talking up its desire to get rid of Saddam. That can only complicate Bush’s task, they said, especially as other countries line up to oppose a military solution.

“I’ve been uncomfortable with telegraphing a punch from Day One,” said Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations. “That has allowed people to take up positions that will not be helpful to us.”

Other analysts said Iraq probably didn’t come up at the summit because the die is already cast.

Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, said he believes the administration is committed to invading Iraq _ if Saddam does not fall beforehand _ and is looking for the right rationale. Bush “has got to be careful that whatever methodology he chooses must be very quick and very successful,” said AbiNader, who opposes invasion. “Otherwise, it’s going to be an enormous liability for him.”

Hussein has denied U.S. allegations that he is trying to build chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons, and he has vowed to defeat any American attack.

Speaking with reporters in the broiling sun, Bush again called for Saddam’s ouster and said, “Regime change is in the interests of the world.”

But he added, “how we achieve that is a matter of consultation and … deliberation, which I do. I’m a deliberate person.”

The president spoke hours after Gen. Tommy Franks, appearing in Kazakstan, said he is drawing up plans for a possible military strike against Iraq, in order to give Bush “credible options.”

Bush downplayed Franks’ comments, saying all generals must “prepare for all contingencies, whether it be in the particular country you seem to be riveted on, or any other country, for that matter.”

Referring to the defense meeting he conducted from his ranch house, Bush said: “I want you to note that General Franks is not here.”

Instead, Bush and Rumsfeld said they conducted a more general review of the military. That included development of a missile defense system, as well as modernizing the military to meet the challenges of the 21st century, particularly post-Sept. 11 terrorism.

Other participants included Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

While this war council did not discuss Iraq, many others are. The debate has included a cascade of news leaks, including possible war plans and reports of objections to any invasion from within the Pentagon and State Department.

American allies in the war on terror have also protested the idea, saying an invasion may encourage Hussein to use weapons of mass destruction, either against American targets or perhaps Israel.

A pre-emptive strike against Iraq may also further de-stabilize the Middle East, critics have said, and could further inflame anti-American sentiment in surrounding Arab countries, leading to takeovers by Islamic radicals who supported the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some of the doubters have come from within Bush’s own Republican Party. They have included Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush.

“The central point is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism,” Scowcroft wrote in a widely publicized column for The Wall Street Journal.

Supporters of a strike against Saddam said it is a matter of time before he uses chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Even possession of such weapons, with the threat they pose, justifies removal, administration aides said.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, appearing on CNN, denounced opponents for leaking unfavorable stories about an invasion of Iraq. He said administration officials and supporters should back their president as he pursues the goal of ridding the world of Saddam.

“I’m not willing to wait on any attack and have American citizens die when we know where the terrorists are, we know where their weapons are, and we need to go get them,” DeLay told CNN. White House aides said they find the debate constructive.

“The president doesn’t look at the many voices that he’s hearing about Iraq as critics,” said press secretary Ari Fleischer. “He looks at them as thoughtful people who have a lot of experience, who also recognize the menace that’s posed by Saddam Hussein.”

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