The Bush administration, underscoring the threat from Saddam Hussein, warned Wednesday that the Iraqi president could obtain nuclear weapons "in the not too distant future."
"History has called us into action," President Bush said, even as he repeated that he has no immediate plans to order a military attack on Iraq.
Bush has said he is committed to Saddam's ouster, contending that the Iraqi leader has ties to terrorist groups and has stockpiled chemical and biological weapons while seeking nuclear bombs.
Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking in California, said Saddam resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons after the 1991 Gulf War interrupted those ambitions.
"Left to his own devices, it's the judgment of many of us that in the not too distant future he will acquire nuclear weapons," said Cheney, defense secretary during the Gulf War. "And a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein is not a pleasant prospect for anyone in the region or for anyone in the world, for that matter."
Iraq denies it has active nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs but has not allowed United Nations weapons inspectors into the country since 1998.
Cheney said he was skeptical that the return of inspectors would solve the problem of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam pledged to give up after the Gulf War.
"He's gotten very good at denial and deception," Cheney said. "A debate with him over inspectors ... would be an effort by him to obfuscate and delay and avoid having to live up to the accords that he signed at the end of the Gulf War."
Bush, speaking in Mississippi, said his administration will consult with Congress and allied nations before taking action. Leaders of some countries have said they feel slighted by the United States, and Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said Wednesday the kingdom would not allow its territory to be used as a base for a U.S. attack on Iraq.
"I will explore all options and all tools at my disposal; diplomacy, international pressure, perhaps the military," Bush said. "But it's important for my fellow citizens to know that, as we see threats evolving, we will deal with them."
In Washington, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff denied news reports that top military brass were out of the loop or resisting civilian officials' push for an invasion of Iraq.
"We are permitted to give our views frequently and regularly and continuously," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers said at a Pentagon briefing. "There's never been a better exchange, in my opinion."
Myers said smugglers trying to evade the U.N. economic sanctions on Iraq have switched to using smaller boats because Iran is cracking down on the sanctions violators. U.S. and allied vessels have stopped 36 ships suspected of violating the sanctions in just the last week, Myers said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tried to rebuff questions about Iraq war plans, saying nothing had been decided.
"People are developing hypotheticals on hypotheticals on hypotheticals, and that is about as unuseful as anything I can imagine," Rumsfeld said.