The Bush administration began yesterday what officials said was a final effort to persuade reluctant allies to adopt a unified position on Iraq, but made clear that President Bush's decision on whether to launch a military attack, with or without them, is only weeks away.
Bush said he is "convinced that this still can be done peacefully," and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States would be willing to help facilitate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's exile. But as the president and top national security aides began what the administration described as the "final phase" of its push for Iraqi disarmament, they left little room for any outcome other than the use of force.
"In my judgment, you don't contain Saddam Hussein. You don't hope that therapy will somehow change his evil mind," Bush said in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he traveled to push a Medicare initiative he outlined in Tuesday night's State of the Union address. The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that small numbers of U.S. military forces are already operating in Iraq.
Next Wednesday, Powell will present the U.N. Security Council with an expanded version of the U.S. indictment against Hussein, consisting largely of already-released information, supplemented by previously undisclosed intelligence and corroborating reports from defectors and detainees, to prove that the Iraqis have been hiding weapons from U.N. inspectors. Although much of the information will be familiar to council diplomats, senior U.S. officials said the main audience will be American and European public opinion. "We're not the audience," one official said, referring to government officials and journalists.
Bush adopted a similar strategy during the State of the Union speech, listing vast amounts of chemical and biological weapons components that Iraq was known to have in the past and has not accounted for, and repeating reports of mobile weapons laboratories, nuclear weapons activities and Iraqi ties with al Qaeda terrorists that he said U.S. intelligence has confirmed.
Powell, a senior administration official said, "is going to lay out the best case we can. We always said there would be a moment at which we were going to have to decide on [whether to risk intelligence] sources and methods" in order to convince skeptics. "This is that moment."
The White House does not plan to push for council action next week. Officials said that, barring unforeseen events, they expect what they described as the "diplomatic window" on Iraq consultations to stay open between now and an update that U.N. weapons inspectors will give the council Feb. 14. They said they would use the time to continue to build their case and complete military preparations in the Persian Gulf region.
Bush has already begun an intensive round of personal diplomacy, starting with those who already support his position. On Monday, he telephoned Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and he will meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi today at the White House. On Friday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will spend the afternoon with Bush at Camp David.
Next week, Bush is expected to begin telephoning heads of governments that hold Security Council seats, and senior U.S. officials will travel to foreign capitals. There was no indication whether Bush also plans to appeal personally to the council's most ardent proponents of continuing the U.N. weapons inspections -- France, China, Russia and Germany. The first three are permanent council members, with the power to veto any resolution; the last will take over the presidency of the council Monday.
Although the administration has said repeatedly that Bush will not make his decision based on opinion polls, and will move against Iraq with a "coalition of the willing" if the United Nations refuses to authorize an attack, his speech Tuesday, Powell's U.N. presentation and the planned diplomatic outreach indicate it recognizes a need to build more support.
Many Democrats said yesterday that Bush's speech had not answered the question of why an attack on Iraq is urgent. "I think the president failed to produce the evidence," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said on ABC's "Good Morning America." Saying he is looking forward to hearing Powell, Daschle said, "We have had the benefit of a number of classified briefings, and I will say at least to date I have not seen any conclusive evidence to suggest that Iraq does pose an imminent threat to the United States."
But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), reflecting a view widely held among Republicans, said that judging from "top secret" evidence and intelligence he has seen, "I would definitely say there's evidence."
Others said they are resigned to military action, whether they are convinced of the need for it or not. "There's going to be a war," Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said after Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld briefed House members behind closed doors yesterday.
At the Security Council, where members met for a second day of questioning of Hans Blix, head of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, and International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei, some diplomats expressed surprise that the administration expected Powell's presentation to be public.
"If you want to give intelligence information that could be decisive to votes," an ambassador from one of the 10 nonpermanent council members said, "you don't do that in public. It looks like a public relations operation."
In reports Monday on their first 60 days of inspections, Blix and ElBaradei said that while Iraq had not impeded their efforts, the country's cooperation was only passive. It has volunteered no information beyond last month's 12,000-page weapons declaration that inspectors said was riddled with omissions and likely falsehoods. Blix also listed areas in which he said Iraq was actively impeding the expanded inspections authorized by last November's council resolution, including private interviews with weapons scientists and technicians and U-2 aerial surveillance flights.
The administration and its supporters on Iraq are still debating whether to push for a new council resolution, and what form it could take. The most unlikely option is a resolution authorizing the use of force under U.N. auspices. Officials believe it is unlikely that France would agree. A second scenario, being discussed in the administration and with the British, would declare simply that Iraq is in "material breach" of the November resolution, without voting on what to do about it. Most council members agree this would leave the United States and willing partners free to take military action. The administration is increasingly encouraged that Russia, and perhaps China, could be persuaded to support it.
Meanwhile, a European rift widened yesterday between supporters of giving inspectors more time, and those who believe that the inspections have failed and that military action should be considered. Still furious at France and Germany for stating publicly last week that they would never agree to a war, and their recruitment of Belgium and Luxembourg to join a successful effort to prevent direct NATO support, eight other European countries published a letter today extolling their ties with the United States. The letter warns that Iraq threatened world security, and reminds that the United Nations had ordered its disarmament.
The leaders of Britain, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Denmark signed the letter, which appeared this morning in newspapers across Europe and in the Wall Street Journal.
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Peter Slevin and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.