JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed as "utter nonsense" Iraq's call Tuesday for talks on resuming weapons inspections and hinted that President Bush is nearing a decision on how to deal with Saddam Hussein.
On his flight to Johannesburg for a U.N. summit, Powell told reporters that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz's offer to discuss resuming U.N. searches for destructive weapons is an old trick played by Baghdad.
"Tariq Aziz knows perfectly well what must be done," Powell said. "For years, he has been getting on television and manages to have reported without comment his assertion that they have no such weapons, which is nonsense -- utter nonsense."
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Powell will hold meetings Wednesday with various heads of state. Powell said he will try to keep his focus on summit issues, but Iraq was destined to become a top item on his agenda.
Aziz, who also was attending the summit, said Tuesday that Iraq was ready to discuss a return of U.N. weapons inspectors but only in a broader context of ending sanctions and restoring Iraqi sovereignty over its territory.
"If you want to find a solution, you have to find a solution for all these matters, not only pick up one certain aspect of it," Aziz said after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "We are ready to find such a solution."
To that, Powell replied: "He knows it's nonsense. We know it's nonsense. It's the con that the Iraqi regime and especially Mr. Tariq Aziz have been pulling on the international community for years. Where we are now is that it is time for the international community to speak back."
When asked what that implied about the U.S. position, Powell said: "The president will articulate it. He will articulate fully and in the near future."
Powell turned aside talk of dissent over Iraq among Bush's top advisers and tried to tone down the rhetoric of Vice President Dick Cheney and other U.S. officials who have advocated pre-emptive U.S. action to remove Saddam.
That idea, Powell said, was offered as part of "full, free, open debate" among Bush's advisers. He acknowledged differences in the options they offered, adding: "Some are real, some are perceived, some are overhyped."
But Powell said there is no divergence of views when it comes to the core U.S. position that Saddam cannot erase the world's grievances with Baghdad by simply allowing weapons inspections to resume.
Powell would not say whether Bush would spell out his plan for Iraq next week at the U.N. General Assembly and said no decision has been made whether the United States would seek additional U.N. resolutions or Security Council action.
On the sidelines of the gathering on Wednesday, he will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, South African President Thabo Mbeki and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.
With Kasyanov, Powell said, he will review the status of various U.S.-Russian issues since their presidents met back in June.
"We will shake hands and congratulate ourselves on having solved the great chicken war of 2002," Powell said, referring to a trade dispute over poultry exports.
Powell also will address the summit on Wednesday. He said he will stress that the private sector, not government, holds most resources available to help poorer nations. He said he would encourage poor countries to assure potential investors that in their countries, "the money will be used properly, it will be protected by the rule of law, and it will go to the benefit of the people."