By Ron Fournier ~ The Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS -- Raising the specter of war, President Bush told skeptical world leaders Thursday to confront the "grave and gathering danger" of Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- or stand aside as the United States acts. Hesitant allies asked him not to go it alone.
From the United Nations' cavernous main hall, filled with wary friends and one bitter foe in Iraq's ambassador, Bush said the body must rid the world of Saddam's biological, chemical and nuclear arsenals or risk millions of lives in a "reckless gamble."
Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats reported progress toward a U.N. resolution giving Iraq a firm deadline -- just weeks away -- to disarm or face dire, but thus far unspecified, consequences.
"If Iraq's regime defies us again, the world must move deliberately and decisively to hold Iraq to account," Bush said in his 15-minute address. "The just demands of peace and security will be met or action will be unavoidable. And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power."
Bush gave Saddam a chance to avoid confrontation, but only if Iraq meets a series of strict U.S. demands that no U.S. official, including Bush, expects Iraq to meet. The biggest challenge to Saddam: Remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction from Iraqi soil.
The address was Bush's answer to deep reluctance among U.S. allies -- and American lawmakers -- to use force against Saddam despite Iraq's decade-old defiance of U.N. resolutions. By coming to the U.N., Bush rejected the advice of some senior administration officials who had urged him to confront Iraq alone and without delay.
Many world leaders welcomed Bush's attempt to reach out, but counseled him to give Saddam every chance to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return. Others objected to any talk of war, and a few fretted openly about their bleak choices.
"We are facing a lot of very, very difficult challenges and choices, and I guess we will have to choose among a lot of bad options," said Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, in private talks with Bush, warned that an attack on Iraq could cause him domestic problems in his mostly Muslim country and enrage "the Arab street" against the United States, according to an official who heard the exchange.
Addressing the General Assembly before Bush, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged caution. "When states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations," he said.
But he also seemed to back Bush's charges against Saddam, suggesting time was running short for Iraq to admit weapons inspectors.
"If Iraq's defiance continues, the Security Council must face its responsibilities," Annan said.
Defiant as ever, Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Al-Douri blasted Bush.
"He chooses to deceive the world and his own people by the longest series of fabrications that have ever been told by a leader of a nation," Al-Douri said.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, "I don't think that the case for pre-emptive attack has been made conclusively yet. That doesn't mean it can't be." Democrats like Daschle are struggling to balance their concerns of going to war against the political dangers of bucking a popular president.
Even former President Clinton, who urged Bush to finish the job with Osama bin Laden before taking on Iraq, said he had not heard Bush's speech but "I think going to the U.N. was a good thing."
Republican lawmakers praised the address and urged Democrats to yield quickly on a resolution authorizing action against Saddam -- an act that would make Iraq an issue deep in the midterm election campaign.
At the United Nations, the tension was palpable as Bush mingled with world leaders. Before their addresses, Bush and Annan posed stiffly in a corridor until Annan murmured to the president, "Let's shake." Then the two joined hands and Bush placed an arm across Annan's back.
In the speech, Bush bluntly asked, "Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?"
After completing his remarks, Bush drew a deep breath and blew it out again, his cheeks puffed and his frame slumped into a high-backed seat.
Bush does not believe Saddam can avoid confrontation with the United States, advisers said as the president laid out his conditions.
"If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles, and all related material," Bush said. He also demanded that Saddam stop supporting terrorism, persecuting minorities, trading oil illegally for other goods and account for a U.S. pilot and soldiers from other nations missing since the Persian Gulf War.
Administration officials likened the demands to those Bush imposed on the Taliban in the run-up to war in Afghanistan.
Bush did not spell out the consequences of Saddam's refusal to comply, but senior administration officials pointed to language in the address that points to the potential for military action: "The purpose of the United States should not be doubted: The Security Council resolutions will be enforced."
There were doubts, however, from every corner of the world.
German Finance Minister Hans Eichel, for example, warned that an attack on Iraq could wreck Germany's economic recovery.
Bush countered the concerns with a damning account of Saddam's regime, including the attempted assassination of Bush's own father -- former President George H.W. Bush.
He said Saddam has stockpiles of deadly chemical and biological agents, and could build a nuclear weapon within a year if he secured fissile material.
"The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one," Bush said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is here with Bush, will begin working Friday with the Security Council's four other permanent members -- Russia, China, France and Britain -- on a resolution giving Saddam a deadline to disarm. Of the four, only Britain has supported Bush thus far, but U.S. officials said Bush's decision to go to the U.N. first had build momentum for his case.
The resolution may not spell out the punishment if Iraq doesn't comply, but it might address Bush's desire for a tougher weapons inspection system, perhaps one backed by force, officials said.