By Karen DeYoung
and Mike Allen ~ The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - President Bush plans to tell world leaders at the United Nations next week that unless they take quick, unequivocally strong action to disarm Iraq, the United States will be forced to act on its own, senior administration officials said Friday.
The president's Thursday speech will open the door to a possible new round of U.N. inspections of Iraq's biological, chemical and other forms of weapons. The move is a step-back from months of escalating Bush administration threats of unilateral military action and insistence that only the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein can ensure safety from weapons of mass destruction he is believed to have or is trying to develop.
The dominant view within the administration is that the time for inspections has passed and that ultimately Saddam, who has barred inspectors since 1998, will have to be forcibly deposed. But White House officials have been persuaded that working through the U.N., for the moment at least, is advisable and may ultimately facilitate military action.
Launching the international consultations he promised last week, Bush Friday telephoned the leaders of China, Russia and France, who offered little but resistance. Bush's aides said he began the calls - which lasted 30 minutes altogether, including translation - by saying he wanted to talk to the leaders about world security. "We need to work together to make the world peaceful," he was quoted as saying. Bush told the leaders he will send high-level officials to each of their capitals after his U.N. speech.
With the exception of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, major foreign leaders have said they disapprove of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, and stressed that the United Nations is the proper place to deal with Hussein. White House officials acknowledged that none of the leaders embraced Bush's intention to force a regime change.
A Kremlin official said Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed "serious doubts" about the validity of invading Iraq under international law. French President Jacques Chirac, who has been particularly outspoken in opposing a possible invasion, insisted that the U.N. must determine the response to Iraq, officials said. Chinese officials did not characterize the call.
Those three nations, along with Britain and the United States, comprise the "Permanent 5" U.N. Security Council members with veto power. Bush will meet today with Blair at Camp David for what officials described as a "strategy session" on how to proceed at the United Nations.
The administration began privately briefing congressional leaders on the Iraqi threat this week, and will send its senior team to testify at hearings in the expectation that Congress will pass a resolution of support before it recesses next month. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are scheduled to discuss Iraq on TV talk shows Sunday.
Rumsfeld article withdrawn
Friday night, Rumsfeld's office withdrew a 2,300-word article he had written for the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, making the case for pre-emptive military action to head off potential threats from weapons of mass destruction. The article, under discussion since mid-August, argued that deterrence, sanctions and diplomacy might be inadequate against Baghdad's threat. It discussed weapons developments in the three countries Bush has characterized as the axis of evil - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - plus Libya and Syria. He said pre-emptive action should be considered even in instances where evidence was not concrete.
Defense officials had said the article would need to be cleared by the White House. The article was delivered Tuesday. Rumsfeld approved a final version shortly before leaving for Camp David at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Around 6, a defense official said the White House decided the article could not run. Shortly thereafter, another official said Rumsfeld had changed his mind.
The White House continued to contend it never opposed seeking congressional authorization for an attack on Iraq. Mary Matalin, a senior adviser to Cheney, denied an assertion in Friday's Washington Post that his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, had expressed doubts about that course.
Senior White House officials and diplomats familiar with high-level administration thinking said Bush's announcement Wednesday that he would seek congressional authorization, and would make his case to the United Nations, reflected a recognition that the administration cannot be seen as ignoring domestic and world opinion. "There is definitely a new focus on the U.N.," said one official.
While insisting that Bush remains open to invasion alternatives, several senior officials said they could not envision a workable new inspection regime. They expressed virtually no confidence that the Security Council can agree, let alone effectively implement, a resolution that would achieve full, verifiable Iraqi disarmament within an acceptable timeframe. Nor do they believe Saddam would accept new inspections.
Making room for such an option, however, is now seen by the White House as a necessary price for achieving the support for an invasion that many in the administration believe will be necessary. Bush's challenge to the United Nations is expected to include an explicit expectation of such endorsements in the event other options fail.
In his UN speech, officials said, Bush plans to present the threat from Iraqi chemical, biological and eventually nuclear weapons in its starkest terms, and to try to shift the responsibility for dealing with Iraq from Washington to the world. He will make say the time for dealing with the threat is limited. To those who have demanded a "smoking gun," said one senior official, "the answer is: 'By the time you see the evidence, it's too late.' " The official said Bush will remind the Security Council that its enforcement track record in Iraq is abysmal, with Saddam flouting 16 resolutions since 1990. Saddam regularly impeded U.N. inspections mandated as part of the 1991 Persian Gulf War ceasefire agreement. It is widely agreed that over the past four years he has reconstituted and expanded Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs and, according to some U.S. officials, made progress toward nuclear weapons.
Bush, one senior official said, will make it clear that it is U.N., not U.S. credibility at stake. "You can expect all those points in the speech," the official said.
Those outside the administration favoring a more muscular extension of the existing inspection regime have proposed several alternatives. The European Union has proposed setting a deadline for Iraqi compliance, and a Carnegie Endowment proposal calls for "coercive inspections" backed by an international military force. Still under internal administration discussion is whether Bush would support these or other options for "last chance" inspections.
At their Camp David strategy session Saturday afternoon, Bush and Blair will consider options for ensuring that any Security Council resolution be as strong as possible - perhaps by having Britain introduce it. Despite taking considerable public and political heat at home, Blair has continued to voice support for Bush's description of the Iraqi threat and the imminent need to deal with it. But even Blair, British sources said, strongly believes that Bush must go one more round with the United Nations before taking unilateral action, and feels that his strong backing has helped persuade Bush agree.
Bush continues his diplomacy on Monday in Detroit with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, whose aides said this week an attack on Iraq would be a dangerous international precedent.
The rebuffs Bush received in Friday's phone calls were not a surprise. "The president heard messages of openness, a willingness to listen," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "But it is fair to say that each of these three leaders has various thoughts of their own." Fleischer said Bush, while stressing the threat posed by Iraq, told the leaders he values their opinions and "has not made any decision about the next course of action to take."