Branding Saddam Hussein "an enemy until proven otherwise," President Bush said Saturday he is consulting with Congress and U.S. allies about whether or not to use military force to topple the Iraqi president.
Although he plans to spend a lot of time discussing the options with his principal policy advisers, Bush said he has no timetable for deciding on a military strike against Iraq or "for any of our policies in regard to Iraq." A decision may not even come this year.
Saddam has "a history of tyranny," Bush told reporters before a round of golf at the Ridgewood Country Club in Waco, Texas. "I think most people understand he is a danger."
Bush stressed that he has many tools to help deal with Iraq. Calling himself a "deliberate person," Bush said the United States is not only consulting with Congress, but "our friends and allies," as well.
"I want people to fully understand our deep concern about this man, his regime," he said. "As I said I have no timetable. But I do believe the American people understand that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of leaders such as Saddam Hussein are very dangerous for us and our allies.
"They understand the concept of blackmail and that when we speak of making the world more safe, we do so not only in the concept of terrorist groups but of nations that have proven themselves to be bad neighbors and bad actors."
Six Iraqi opposition leaders gathered in the White House complex later Saturday for a video conference call with Vice President Dick Cheney, who is spending part of August at his Wyoming home.
They also met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among the Bush administration's strongest voices for consideration of military action to replace the Iraqi president with a democratic government. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also attended the meeting.
"We are very optimistic that they will do something to affect regime change," said Sharif Ali of the Iraqi National Congress, referring to U.S. officials. "We are working with them to facilitate that because ultimately the U.S. did agree with us that it was up to the Iraqi people."
Ali said Cheney and Rumsfeld indicated they would support a "democratic regime in Iraq."
"We discussed many broad issues, many specific issues regarding the future of Iraq and we are all agreed that the Iraqi people would play an important role in regime change," Ali said.
The Iraqi leaders received assurances during a State Department meeting Friday that the United States will fulfill commitments to protect Iraqis who face possible attacks from Saddam's forces.
"We're very optimistic about these meetings and we think it's a good sign of U.S. commitment to helping the Iraqi people overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein and his rule of tyranny and the threat against the international community," Ali said Saturday.
Bush, who is vacationing at his ranch for four weeks in Crawford, reminded reporters that he designated Iraq, Iran and North Korea in January as members of an "axis of evil."
Referring to Iraq, Bush said before golfing: "I described them as the axis of evil once. I describe them as the enemy until proven otherwise."
"They obviously desire weapons of mass destruction and I assume that he still views us as the enemy," Bush said. "We owe it to our children's children to free the world of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those who hate freedom."
U.S. officials in Washington recalled after Friday's meeting with the opposition leaders that Saddam used poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and sent troops into the Kurdish areas in 1991 to put down an uprising shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War.
In the event of any additional attacks on the Kurds, the United States would respond, said an official who wanted to remain anonymous.
The U.S. officials said the Iraqis made no request for military aid or training. They said the U.S. side was 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.