WASHINGTON -- Edging toward war, President Bush called on skeptical allies Thursday night to stand ready to use force against Iraq but said the United States was prepared to act on its own.
"We really don't need anybody's permission," Bush said.
In a prime-time news conference, he said a critical Security Council vote on a resolution authorizing war was just "days away" and said he would push for a vote on the measure even if it appeared destined to fail.
"It's time for people to show their cards and let people know where they stand," the president said.
In measured tones, Bush answered questions for about 30 minutes after a 10-minute opening statement that called Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's claims of disarmament a "willful charade." He said Saddam has ordered production of illicit missiles even as he destroys others, accused Iraqi officials of shuttling biological and chemical agents between secret locations and said Iraqi scientists are required to wear concealed recording devices while being interviewed by U.N. inspectors.
Challenge to skeptics
He pointedly challenged France, Germany and other skeptical allies to stand with him.
"If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, refusing to use force even as a last resort, free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risks," he said.
The 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.
Bush shrugged off the protests of millions worldwide and chided critics who want to give for U.N. weapons inspectors more time to do their work.
"A little bit more time? Saddam Hussein has had 12 years to disarm," he said.
Dramatically raising his right hand, the president said that he had swore to defend the Constitution and protect America's security. "That's exactly what I am going to do," he said.
Bush promised not to lead the war into another Vietnam-like quagmire.
"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."
The president's news conference came on the eve of a crucial Security Council meeting. Today, 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.
With 230,000 U.S. troops poised outside Iraq, the president said only Saddam can ensure peace. "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."
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.
Though he said there was some hope for peace, Bush repeatedly spoke in the past tense about Saddam's ability to avoid war -- leaving the impression that war was imminent.
"I don't like war," he said. "I wish that Saddam Hussein had listened to the demands of the world and disarmed. That was my hope."
At turns somber and light, Bush joked a few times with reporters. He grew teary-eyed while saying 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."
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."
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.