WASHINGTON – President Bush telephoned the leaders of China, Russia and France on Friday in hopes of softening their opposition to ousting Saddam Hussein, but he made little noticeable progress.
In a series of cursory calls from the Oval Office, Bush talked for a total of 30 minutes with Presidents Jacques Chirac of France, Jiang Zemin of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Each could use his country's votes on the United Nations Security Council to veto resolutions aimed at Saddam.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "told the foreign leaders that he values their opinion and he stressed that Saddam Hussein was a threat and that we need to work together to make the world peaceful." He said Bush has not decided how to oust Saddam, thus did not share any plans with the leaders.
Chirac wasn't convinced by Bush's call, repeating his long-standing position that any military action against Baghdad should be decided by the U.N. Security Council, said Catherine Colonna, a Chirac spokeswoman.
Putin talked to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has emerged as Bush's closest ally on Iraq. The Russian president told Blair there was "a real potential" for a political solution to the crisis around Baghdad's alleged stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, a Kremlin press service statement said.
Putin spokesman Alexei Gromov did not say what Bush and Putin talked about.
In Beijing, China's official Xinhua News Agency said Jiang and Bush discussed world affairs but didn't say whether they brought up Saddam.
Bush promised to send diplomats to each of the three nations to continue consultations after he addresses the United Nations on Sept. 12.
The telephone conversations could lay the groundwork for the administration requesting the Security Council adopt a resolution setting a deadline for Iraq to admit weapons inspectors or risk punitive action.
Fleischer said Bush did not discuss the inspectors issue with the leaders.
Also Friday, Bush met with his foreign policy team on Iraq and was meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the White House.
Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and CIA Director George Tenet met at the Pentagon on Thursday with the bipartisan group of senators in hopes of building support for a congressional a resolution giving Bush authority to act against Saddam. Cheney and Tenet met separately with congressional leadership on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle indicated Friday he will not be rushed to judgment on Iraq.
"I'm not going to categorize the information we were provided," Daschle said on NBC Today program.
"All I would say is that some of our questions were answered, but there are a lot more out there that need to be addressed," the South Dakota Democrat said.
Also on NBC, Iraqi ambassador Mohammed Aldouri insisted Saddam does not belong to the "club of mass destruction." He added, "We have no such weapons at all, no chemical weapons, no biological weapons."
Shown a tape of the interview with the ambassador, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott fired back: "If there were a question of truth or consequences, he just failed. If this is not true, let inspectors in unfettered."
Blair meets with Bush at his Camp David presidential retreat on Saturday. The president meets Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who said Thursday he has yet to see evidence to justify Canadian support for a military campaign against Iraq.
France and China have said any military action against Iraq should be decided by the United Nations. Russia opposes war with Iraq, but its stand is clouded by growing economic and diplomatic ties to the country.
In his speech to the U.N. next week, Bush plans to restate the argument he made in public Wednesday, that the Security Council was obligated to hold Iraq accountable for not complying with the U.N. resolutions, U.S. officials said.
The officials confirmed he was reviewing several ideas, including giving Saddam a last-ditch deadline for allowing unfettered access to weapons inspectors, but said the president and his advisers had determined that Friday was too soon to show his hand.
Indeed, he does not plan to break major new ground in a Sept. 12 address to the United Nations; aides who have seen early drafts say Bush makes a forceful case for ousting Saddam and warns the United Nations that its credibility and relevancy is on the line. While there is no "huge divergence" on what to say, the topic is still the subject of lively discussions within the administration, one official said.
Aides say concrete plans to oust Saddam will likely wait for another speech, perhaps a joint session of Congress, once Bush is finished consulting with allies and lawmakers and makes a final decision on how to handle Saddam.