U.S.: Iraq Poses 'Very Grave Threat'

The Bush administration dismissed Iraq's response to U.N. disarmament demands as inadequate Monday, arguing that nothing in the inspection report shows Baghdad has done enough to avert war.

"They are not cooperating unconditionally," John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York.

"In the days ahead, we believe the Council and its member governments must face its responsibilities and consider what message Council irresolution sends to Iraq and other proliferators," Negroponte said. "It benefits no one to let Saddam Hussein think he can wear us down into the business as usual as he has practiced it over the last 12 years."

Administration officials insisted that an invasion of Iraq remained President Bush's last choice. This came as the White House prepared to release new evidence to support its charges that Saddam remains defiant and heads a regime with ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.

A senior U.S. official said Secretary of State Colin Powell will bring forward fresh evidence sometime after a meeting Friday between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush was not expected to unveil any new evidence in Tuesday's State of the Union address, although he will outline the case against Saddam.

Eager to show he is consulting with other leaders, President Bush spoke Monday with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a conservative ally.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush is not eager for war. "He hopes it can be averted, but he is also clear about the fact that one way to save American lives is to prevent Saddam Hussein from engaging in something that can be far, far worse than the price that we've already seen on Sept. 11."

The White House reacted coolly to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's plea for longer weapons inspections in Iraq.

Fleischer said the U.N. inspectors "are doing their best job." But he added that "the more time they get, the more they're getting the run-around."

Fleischer renewed accusations that the United States believes there are ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

The spokesman said Al Qaeda prisoners have revealed that Iraq provided chemical weapons training to Al Qaeda. Asked if Al Qaeda terrorists visited Iraq for training or if Iraqis went to Afghanistan, he said, "We have concerns about both."

He provided no details or evidence, but suggested Al Qaeda was seeking a new haven after the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan.

At a news conference Monday in Baghdad, Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters Iraq had fully cooperated with the inspectors but said the United States and Britain were nonetheless intent on invading his country.

Bush was spending most of his day preparing the State of the Union speech that he will deliver Tuesday night, much of which will be devoted to the possibility of a U.S.-led war with Iraq.

Fleischer said the administration was combing the inspection report for "one thing, very simple thing" -- whether Iraq is complying with international demands to disarm.

He again declined to rule out American use of nuclear weapons against Iraq. "It is a serious concern about Saddam Hussein being armed with chemical and biological weapons and taking out millions," Fleischer said. "These aren't toys. These are weapons that inflict massive, gruesome casualties."

The European Union remained split into two camps, with Britain siding with Washington in advocating military action sooner rather than later. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands largely agree.

But France and Germany, joined by Austria, Belgium, Sweden and Luxembourg, insist that war can only come after a fresh UN. Security Council resolution.

With opposition growing overseas, the president will seek to project unity when he meets Friday at Camp David with his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair himself faces a challenge persuading his own public of the wisdom of war. Opinion surveys show that support for military action against Iraq is at its lowest level ever among the British public.