President Bush said yesterday that he was not willing to wait beyond the next few weeks for a United Nations agreement on waging war against Iraq, and that "any attempt to drag the process on for months will be resisted by the United States."
"This just needs to be resolved quickly," Bush said at a news conference after an Oval Office meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his strongest foreign backer on taking tough action against Baghdad. "Saddam Hussein must understand that if he does not disarm," Bush said, the United States, "along with others," will disarm him with or without U.N. approval.
Standing at Bush's side, Blair agreed that the Iraqi president could not be allowed to continue defying a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that all Iraqi chemical and biological weapons -- and nuclear weapons programs -- be revealed to U.N. inspectors and destroyed. The greatest threat to world peace, both said, was the possibility that Hussein might turn over weapons of mass destruction to international terrorists.
But Blair appeared to have made little headway in extracting a promise from Bush to seek a new council resolution specifically authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Administration sources said that Bush was open to the idea of a new resolution, but that he was less confident than Blair that it could be obtained and made no commitment to delay military action.
Yesterday's meeting was the first face-to-face consultation between the two leaders since Bush challenged the United Nations last September to take action against Iraq, and since the United States and Britain negotiated last November's unanimous Security Council resolution on tough new weapons inspections there. After two months on the ground in Iraq, however, inspectors on Monday reported inadequate Iraqi cooperation, and the council is divided over how much more time to give the effort.
The talks, which began with a private lunch and extended through an early dinner before Blair departed for London, were billed as a crucial strategy session in the final countdown to war. The clock will begin ticking next Wednesday, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said he will present the Security Council with evidence of Iraqi efforts to conceal its weapons and deceive the inspectors.
Asked whether Powell, who has said he will reveal new U.S. intelligence information, would convince council doubters, Bush said he thought the case was already strong enough.
"All due modesty, I thought I did a pretty good job myself of making it clear that he's not disarming and why he should disarm" during Tuesday's State of the Union speech, Bush said. But Powell, he added, "will make a strong case about the danger of a armed Saddam Hussein. He will make it clear that Saddam Hussein is fooling the world, or trying to fool the world. He will make it clear that Saddam is a menace to peace in his own neighborhood."
"And he will also talk about al Qaeda links," Bush said, "links that really do portend a danger for America and for Great Britain, anybody else who loves freedom."
Both Bush and Blair said that links between the terrorist network and the Iraqi government exist, although Blair spoke of them as a future rather than an immediate threat. "I've got absolutely no doubt at all that unless we deal with both these threats," Blair said of the nexus between hostile states such as Iraq and international terrorist groups, "they will come together in a deadly form."
Blair faces widespread opposition among the British public, and within his Labor Party, to participation in a U.S.-led war that has not been sanctioned by the United Nations. At least 11 of the council's 15 members -- including France, Russia and China, all with veto power -- have said they think inspections should continue. But Blair thinks U.N. approval for a new resolution, either specifically authorizing the use of force or implicitly sanctioning it by declaring that Iraq has not cooperated, is still within reach, British sources said.
He believes, the sources said, that allowing chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to make two or three additional reports to the council would demonstrate sufficient Security Council commitment to the inspections. Assuming those reports would result in a negative assessment of Iraqi behavior, the British believe it would be difficult for any council member to deny that Iraq had violated the November resolution; if not, at least they would show the British public that Blair tried. Blix is scheduled to give his next assessment to the council on Feb. 14. Ideally, from the British perspective, there would be three more at two-week intervals.
As Bush and Blair met, other top administration officials kept up the rhetorical pressure on Iraq and the United Nations. Vice President Cheney, speaking at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee, said, "Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction poses a grave danger, not only to his neighbors, but also to the United States. . . . His regime aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. He could decide to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists for their use against us."
Asserting that Hussein is continuing his "decade-old game of defiance, delay and deception," Cheney said the Iraqi leader has already demonstrated that he "has absolutely no intention of complying" with the most recent U.N. resolution. Confronting Iraq "is not a distraction from the war on terror; it is absolutely crucial to winning the war on terror."
In a speech to the World Affairs Council, Powell acknowledged that U.S. foreign policy was unpopular abroad. "There's no question that our policy with respect to Iraq is not supported by large numbers of Europeans and in other nations around the world," he said. But the United States must uphold its principles, he said, and attitudes would change if the policy were successful.
U.S. forces continued to gather in the Persian Gulf region, even as the debate over if and when to use them continued in Washington. U.S. Central Command announced that aircraft had dropped more than 1 million leaflets in southern Iraq yesterday, calling on soldiers not to fight for Hussein and Iraqi civilians to turn against him.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, former president Jimmy Carter issued a toughly worded statement saying that "our government has not made a case for a preemptive military strike against Iraq, either at home or in Europe."
Asked by a British reporter yesterday whether his international diplomacy was "a charade," and whether he had "always intended war on Iraq," Bush replied sharply that "quite to the contrary, my vision shifted dramatically after September the 11th, because I now realize the stakes. I realize the world has changed."
At the time of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said, "we were discussing smart sanctions" against Iraq, referring to an updated regime negotiated with the United Nations to further restrict Iraqi purchases of weapons-related materials while easing restrictions on food and medicine. "We were trying to fashion a sanction regime that would make it more likely to be able to contain somebody like Saddam Hussein," he said.
Bush said that "after September the 11th, the doctrine of containment just doesn't hold any water, as far as I'm concerned." However, the U.N. resolution on smart sanctions was not approved by the Security Council until Nov. 29, 2001, and the new sanctions list was adopted last May. The United States voted for both resolutions.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.