WASHINGTON – As the administration intensified contacts with Iraqi opposition leaders, President Bush said Friday he has no timetable for deciding on a military strike against Iraq and may not decide this year.
"And if I did, I wouldn't tell you or the enemy," Bush told The Associated Press during a brief interview at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Pressed on whether he would decide this year, he said, "Not necessarily."
Bush's comments came as U.S. officials met with Iraqi opposition groups intent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein and amid growing unease from members of Congress about the wisdom of taking military action against Iraq without just cause.
On Thursday, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, cautioned against an unprovoked U.S. attack against Saddam. Sens. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., have been among Republicans who also have expressed concern.
"My own view would be to let him bluster, let him rant and rave all he wants," Armey said of the Iraqi president in a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, indicating a crack in Republican support for Bush's push to topple Saddam. "As long as he behaves himself within his own borders, we should not be addressing any attack or resources against him."
Six Iraqi opposition leaders spent two hours meeting with top administration officials at the State Department.
Afterward, department spokesman Philip Reeker said the meeting focused on "coordination of the U.S. government's work with the Iraqi opposition and enhancing cooperation among Iraqi opposition groups."
A spokesman for the Iraqi group, Dr. Hamid al-Bayati, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the Iraqis presented their vision "for the overthrow of the dictatorial regime in Iraq."
He also said that the group requested U.S. protection for the Iraqi people from "regime oppression," consistent with the terms of three U.N. Security Council resolutions approved after the Gulf War ended 11 years ago.
These apparently refer to the use of international support, if necessary, to protect Iraqis from attacks by Saddam's forces.
In this connection, a State Department official said the United States is aware of the risks facing Iraqis who oppose the regime. He recalled the crackdowns in the Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq and the Shiite areas in the south.
For that reason, he said the United States has kept Iraqi fighter planes away from both regions through no-fly zones.
"That's why we've made it clear that should Saddam move against the Kurds, we would respond," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Bayati also said that in a bid for unity, all Iraqi opposition groups will be invited to attend a meeting in the next few months, probably in Europe.
Leading the Iraqi delegation was Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime Iraqi exile who heads the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition umbrella group.
Chalabi sat across from Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. The group will have a video conference call on Saturday with Vice President Dick Cheney, who is staying at his home in Wyoming.
Administration officials who briefed reporters after the State Department meeting said the Iraqis made no request for military aid or training.
They said U.S. officials were struck by the conviction of each of the Iraqi leaders to fight for a democratic Iraq and for the establishment of the rule of law.
Secretary of State Colin Powell made a brief appearance at the start of the meeting and told the gathering, "Our shared goal is that the Iraqi people should be free."
Bush said he did not object to congressional committees holding hearings on how to carry out the administration's goal of achieving regime change in Iraq.
He said the White House conveyed this message to Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, before Biden held two days of hearings on Iraq last week.
U.S. officials have said Saddam has scattered chemical and biological weapons and nuclear materials, hiding them under palaces or mountains, since the departure of the last U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998. Iraq has denied possessing such weapons.
Administration officials also warned this week that Saddam would acquire a nuclear capability "in the not too distant future" unless stopped and voiced skepticism that the return of weapons inspectors would solve the problem.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called Armey "a fine congressman and a good friend" and said he had a right to his opinion. Rumsfeld also expressed a desire to meet with the Iraqi opposition leaders.
"I think it's important for people to say what they think on these things. And that's the wonderful thing about our country. We have a public debate and dialogue and discussion on important issues," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said he would like to see Iraq evolve the way Afghanistan has -- with a government that supports terrorism replaced by one with a democratic cast.
He also said he is opposed to the fragmentation of Iraq, an outcome that some believe could result from a U.S. military attack. Under some scenarios, the Kurdish population of northern Iraq would break away and form their own state.
"We would like to see a country that forswears weapons of mass destruction and says, `That's really not in the interest of the people,"' Rumsfeld added.
He also expressed concern that international economic sanctions against Iraq have eroded over time.
"People decide they don't agree with them any more, and they start trading," Rumsfeld said. "People figure clever ways to get around them with dual-use technologies. People do it illegally across borders, and these are porous borders."
The INC representatives came here saying they were prepared to speak with U.S. officials with one voice. A priority for the group has been for the Pentagon to provide military training to Iraqi fighters who could be used to secure and hold territory as part of any U.S.-led offensive against Iraq.