Originally created 02/26/03

Bush heads drive for U.N. backing on using force



WASHINGTON -- Iraq must fully disarm to avoid war, President Bush said Tuesday, as he urged the United Nations to "honor its word" and back U.S. action against Saddam Hussein.

Amid diplomatic wrangling over a U.S.-British resolution declaring that Saddam has missed his chance for peace, the president said it would be helpful to pass the measure "but I don't believe we need a second resolution."

In a brief exchange with reporters, Bush was asked what it would take to avoid war. "Full disarmament," he replied tersely. Asked to expand on the answer, the president said, "Well, there's only one thing: it's full disarmament. The man has been told to disarm. For the sake of peace, he must completely disarm."

He predicted that Saddam would try to "fool the world one more time," by revealing the existence of weapons that he has previously denied having.

"We expect the Security Council to honor its word by insisting that Saddam disarm. Now's the time," Bush said after a meeting with his economic team.

He is timing his drive for U.N. backing against Iraq to the next report by U.N. weapons inspectors, hoping that it will convince the Security Council that force may be the only way to disarm Saddam.

The report is due on Saturday, but chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei are not expected to appear to answer council questions until March 7. The United States and its partners, Britain and Spain, plan to push for a council vote soon afterward.

Before the president spoke, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there was still "a slim chance" that international pressure would force Iraq to disarm and avoid war.

"There remains an off-ramp," the press secretary said. "The off-ramp will be taken or not taken as a result of Saddam Hussein's actions."

Later, Bush declined to specify the sacrifices facing U.S. troops, their families and the American public in the event the United States goes to war, other than saying that soldiers would be put in harm's way against what he said is a brutal dictator.

Asked about the cost of war, Bush did not offer any estimates. He did say he believes that doing nothing is a greater risk.

Earlier, Bush met with Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski. Along with Britain and Spain, Bulgaria is the only other nation on the Security Council known to be solidly behind U.S. policy on Iraq.

"We all share the same values - both you people here, we in Europe and we Bulgarians," the prime minister told reporters afterward. "No matter how serious this crisis is, I certainly don't think it's worth dividing" Europe from the United States," he said.

American reporters were not allowed in his White House meeting, which comes amid increased diplomatic activity by Bush and his advisers.

After a round of talks with top Bush administration officials on Monday, German opposition leader Angela Merkel said she had learned "there is some time to try to find a common position" between the French-led anti-war bloc and the United States and its handful of supporters.

And Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's U.N. representative, said on the PBS' program "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer": "We haven't set a deadline because we didn't want to play the ultimatum game."

But, Greenstock said, "the speculation that this is a small number of weeks and not a large number of months is, I think, correct, and we can look at the second week of March as the period when I think this will come to a climax."

In the interim, Bush is heading a persistent and uphill diplomatic campaign. With nine votes required for approval of the resolution presented by the United States, Britain and Spain, only one other nation on the council, Bulgaria, is known to be solidly behind them.

In the meantime, France, Russia and Germany have countered with a proposal to avert war by strengthening and expanding U.N. weapons inspections.

In another development, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in an interview with CBS, challenged Bush to a debate on live television.

"I am ready to conduct a direct dialogue - a debate - with your president," CBS quoted Saddam as saying. "I will say what I want and he will say what he wants."

"There is no debating his need to disarm," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

The last report by the inspectors on Feb. 14 did not strengthen the U.S. hand. While Secretary of State Colin Powell said it reflected only improvement in process, not Iraqi cooperation, France and most other council members said the report showed inspections were paying off and should be extended.

Bush is concentrating his lobbying on world leaders already in the U.S. camp. He talked by telephone Monday with President Ion Iliescu of Romania, who supports using force sooner rather than later.

But the president is likely to widen the net in the days ahead. And he plans a speech Wednesday night at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center in Washington, to argue that removing Saddam from power would improve life in Iraq and help Middle East stability.

"You begin with your sponsors and then you move forward from there to build support beyond the sponsorship," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in discussing U.S. strategy.

At the same time, the president is treading carefully with French President Jacques Chirac, who heads the anti-war bloc. Bush and Powell have avoided a public scrap with the French leader and affirmed the right of other nations to dissent from the U.S. view.