WASHINGTON - President Bush, moving toward a decision on war with Iraq, said today he will give diplomacy "weeks not months" and said the United States would welcome Saddam Hussein going into exile.
“For the sake of peace, this issue must be resolved,’’ the president said amid intensified administration efforts to increase pressure on reluctant U.S. allies to disarm Saddam.
From Capitol Hill to public appearances elsewhere in Washington, key administration figures kept up the war of words against the Iraqi leader even as one ally - Canada - objected to any unilateral action by the United States.
Bush met with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a firm supporter of the United States’ hardline position toward Iraq. In an Oval Office session with the Italian leader, Bush put allies on notice that he will not wait long to act against Saddam, even if the United Nations refuses to back his actions.
“This is a matter of weeks not months,’’ Bush said.
The British and Italians are among Bush’s staunchest supporters while a number of other U.S. allies, including France and Germany, want to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time in Iraq.
Bush was meeting later with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, who is trying to rally nations behind a plan to offer Saddam exile. Bush said he was open to the idea.
“Should he choose to leave the country, along with other henchmen who have tortured ... Iraqi people, we will welcome that, of course,’’ Bush said. He said, however, that the U.S. would continue to insist that Iraq disarm, regardless of who governs the nation.
Meanwhile, Canada cautioned the United States against acting alone against Iraq.
“If one state acts by itself it risks consequences,’’ said Bill Graham, the foreign minister of Canada. Graham met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and said afterward that the United Nations had a responsibility to force Iraq to disarm.
On Capitol Hill, Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, faced a hearing
before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democratic and Republican committee members said they want Powell to brief Congress before he goes before the United Nations next week.
Some Democratic senators have been trying to slow the push toward war by pushing resolutions that would require the administration to seek fresh votes from the U.N. Security Council, in one case, and Congress, in the other. Many Democratic senators - and at least a handful of Republicans - say they agree that Saddam is a danger, but questioned why inspections shouldn’t be given more time.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., suggested at Thursday’s hearing that international pressure on Iraq may have diminished the danger posed by Saddam. “I think the American people are feeling, with the inspectors in there, there is a sense of security.’’
When Chafee noted that parts of report by the U.N. arms inspection team led by Hans Blix showed Iraqi cooperation with inspectors, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said Blix considered “substantive cooperation to be sorely lacking.’’
“The decision to go to war then is splitting a hair here, it seems, over cooperation or lack of it,’’ Chafee responded.
At the hearing, some senators - and Armitage - criticized other nations for being reluctant to support the U.S. position on Iraq. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the panel’s top Democrat, said that world leaders recognize that Iraq is violating the resolution, but they are reluctant to act.
“There are some leaders, as you suggest ... who do not want to lead,’’ Armitage said.
Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney continued the administration’s drumbeat of tough talk, seeking to calm many Americans’ fears about a new military conflict distracting U.S. officials from the anti-terror campaign.
“We will not permit a brutal dictator with ties to terror and a record of reckless aggression to dominate the Middle East and threaten the United States of America,’’ Cheney said before the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Confronting the threat posed by Iraq is not a distraction from the war on terror it is absolute crucial to winning the war on terror.’’
“Whatever action is required, whenever action is necessary we will defend the freedom and the security of the American people,’’ Cheney said.
Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the timeline could change in the fluid Iraq standoff, Bush intends to continue the consultation period until Feb. 14, when U.N. weapons inspectors give the Security Council an update on the situation in Iraq.
Administration officials have said repeatedly that time is running out for Saddam. “The president is using this window now to engage in very busy and active diplomacy,’’ said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The administration is also combing intelligence data for details Powell could release to support its accusations that Iraq has a secret weapons programs and links to terrorist groups when he appears next week before the public U.N. session. The administration is working to find a way to release such information without compromising U.S. intelligence sources.
Also Thursday, Bush directed up to $15 million to be available to deal with the refugee crisis that any military action may produce. “Such an emergency may arise if it becomes necessary for the United States and other nations to use military force to disarm the Iraqi regime of its weapons of mass destruction,’’ Bush said in a memo to Powell.