War plans in hand, Bush administration officials on Sunday promised "zero-tolerance" if Saddam Hussein refuses to comply with international calls to disarm.
A new U.N. Security Council resolution demands that Iraq eliminate its weapons of mass destruction and open up to inspectors or face "serious consequences," and top White House aides said they are watching closely to ensure Saddam cooperates.
"We do not need to waste the world's time with another game of cat and mouse," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said.
Under the resolution, the Security Council would assess any violations and decide how to respond. But several administration officials made plain that the United States reserved the right to invade Iraq with or without U.N. approval.
"We have the authority by the president's desire to protect and defend the United States of America," White House chief of staff Andrews Card said on NBC's Meet the Press. "The U.N. can meet and discuss, but we don't need their permission."
Added Secretary of State Colin Powell: If we find that debate is going nowhere, if the U.N. chooses not to act, we have not given up our authority to act with like-minded nations who might wish to join us in such an action."
The administration received support Sunday when Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo urged Saddam to accept the terms of the resolution.
Rice, meantime, dismissed as "ludicrous" the call by the Iraqi president for his parliament to hold an emergency session on the resolution.
"Saddam Hussein is an absolute dictator and tyrant, and the idea that somehow he expects the Iraqi parliament to debate this — they've never debated anything else," Rice said on ABC's This Week. "I'm surprised he's even bothering to go through this ploy."
Administration officials faced questions on reports published Sunday on President Bush's approval of a battle plan should Iraq fail to comply with the U.N. resolution. The leaks appeared to be an effort to send Saddam a message about how serious the United States is.
A Pentagon plan for invading Iraq calls for a land, sea and air force of 200,000 to 250,000 troops. Pentagon planners had considered an approach that would have used 100,000 or fewer troops, but they settled on a much larger force favored by Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the Central Command that would run any war in Iraq, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"If I were Saddam Hussein I would take it with a great deal of concern and seriousness and understand that this is not some idle threat that has been issued by the United States," Powell said on CBS' Face the Nation. "This is not some resolution to be ignored, as he's ignored all previous resolutions."
Powell, Rice and Card declined to discuss the details of the plan, and Bush ignored a question about it as he returned to the White House from Camp David.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the administration may have planted false stories to mislead Iraq. "It may be disinformation, as far as we know," he said in a televised interview.
"I don't think it's particularly helpful for actual plans to be out there publicly," said Levin, D-Mich. "On the other hand, there's some value in that, because it shows Saddam seriousness of purpose, and if he doesn't get that idea from all the other rhetoric and actions that we've taken, this should clearly finish the job."
Iraq has until Friday to accept the terms of the U.N. and pledge to comply, and until Dec. 8 to provide weapons inspectors and the Security Council with a complete declaration of all aspects of its chemical, biological and nuclear programs.
"If he says, 'We have none,' we're already going to know that this is not a regime that is changing its stripes, because everybody knows that there is much that is unaccounted for from the old inspections regime," Rice said on Fox News Sunday.
"It's been pretty clear that the next material breach [of Iraq's U.N. obligations] has got to have serious consequences," Rice said. "I think it's pretty clear what that may mean."
"We have to have a zero-tolerance view of the Iraqi regime this time," Rice said. "This is a regime with a very long history now of deception and deceit."
Rice said she was "very skeptical" Saddam would comply.