WASHINGTON – President Bush said Monday he does not think Saddam Hussein will disarm, even if doing so would allow the Iraqi leader to remain in power.
"We don't believe he's going to change," the president said as skeptical allies debated his proposed United Nations resolution that would force Saddam to disarm or face consequences, potentially military force.
"However, if he were to meet all the conditions of the United Nations -- the conditions that I've described very clearly in terms that everybody can understand -- that in itself would signal the regime has changed," Bush said after a meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.
U.S. policy, approved by Congress and backed by the Clinton and Bush administrations, calls for "regime change" in Iraq -- a phrase widely interpreted to require the ouster of Saddam.
In a rapidly changing diplomatic landscape, Bush and his top advisers have strategically sent mixed signals about whether Saddam could remain in power by changing the nature of the regime.
"We've tried diplomacy. We're trying it one more time. I believe the free world, if we make up our mind to, can disarm this man peacefully," Bush said. "But if not ... we have the will and the desire, as do other nations, to disarm Saddam."
As he spoke, U.S. diplomats distributed a revised U.N. resolution on Iraq to the other veto-wielding members of the Security Council that would toughen weapons inspections and ensure there will be "consequences" if Iraq fails to comply.
"Diplomacy needs to be backed by force, especially in matters like this," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. He told allies it's time to wrap up negotiations and pass the U.S.-backed resolution.
But diplomats from Russia and France, two countries that can block it, expressed doubts that an agreement can be reached.
Bush has demanded that Saddam disarm, stop supporting terrorism, end persecution of ethnic groups, stop trading oil illegally, account for a U.S. pilot and soldiers and civilians from other nations missing since the Persian Gulf War and let witnesses of his illegal activity be interviewed outside Iraq.
Critics have said the conditions were purposely set too high for Saddam to comply, and that Bush is setting the stage for an inevitable military confrontation.
Bush and his advisers stress the potential for military action and removal of Saddam while addressing domestic audiences. A congressional resolution signed by the president last week gives him specific authority to use force.
The White House, however, plays down the push to oust Saddam while courting world leaders, who are skeptical of military action. Entering the final stages of U.N. negotiations, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested Sunday that Saddam could escape removal should he comply with U.N. demands.
"The policy is regime change, however it is defined," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.
But the spokesman said there is little chance that Saddam might meet those demands and force Bush to determine whether the Iraqi leadership should be changed regardless.
"I think this is among the greatest stretches of the hypotheticals, of the possibles, of the unlikelies that you could possibly hypothetically discuss," he said. "Let the changes in ways take place, and then ask me about it."
Fleischer was just as dismissive about Saddam's move to grant amnesty to political and other prisoners on Sunday.
"It does seem to be a political ploy," he said.
Fleischer said a new U.N. resolution will give weapons inspectors more clout to root out and eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Saddam will be required to comply with inspections unconditionally and list what weapons of mass destruction Iraq possesses.
"We will have zero tolerance for any violations of a U.N. resolution," Fleischer said.
Bush drew a distinction Monday between Saddam's Iraq and North Korea, the reclusive regime that shocked U.S. official this month by conceding that it has a secret nuclear weapons program.
"What makes him even more unique is the act that he's actually gassed his own people," Bush said of Saddam. "He's used his weapons of mass destruction on neighboring countries, and he's used his weapons of mass destruction on his own citizenry."
"He wants to have a nuclear weapon. He has made it very clear he hates the United States and, as importantly, he hates friends of ours," the president said.