WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is leaving open a "diplomatic window" for a "final phase" of talks with allies about what to do about Iraq if Saddam Hussein continues to evade U.N. resolutions.
But, President Bush said Wednesday that the United States will not wait forever for the international body to conclude that Saddam is not living up to resolutions in which he agreed to surrender weapons of mass destruction that he acknowledged having after the Persian Gulf War but never gave up.
"Should [the United Nations] not choose to pressure Saddam and should he continue to defy the world, for the sake of our peace, for the sake of the security, this country will lead a coalition of other willing nations and we will disarm Saddam Hussein," Bush said at a speech in Grand Rapids, Mich. "We will commit the full force and might of the United States military and in the name of peace, we will prevail."
The president said that he doesn't have high hopes that Saddam can be rehabilitated.
"In my judgment you don't contain Saddam Hussein. You don't hope that therapy will somehow change his evil mind," he said.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell said the administration would be amenable to letting Saddam and a few family members retreat into exile if it would mean avoiding war.
"If he were to leave the country, and take some of his family members with him, and others in the leading elite that have been responsible for so much trouble during the course of his regime, we would, I'm sure, try to find a place for them to go," Powell said at the State Department.
"That certainly would be one way to avoid war, and we have indicated that before," he said.
But, barring that unlikely circumstance, Powell is headed to the United Nations next week to lay out the details of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program and his ties to terrorists.
Powell is prepared to demonstrate evidence that "will fill in some of the gaps with respect" to some of the problems confronted by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei in attempting to get Saddam to cooperate with disarmament.
Powell said some of that information will be an expansion of what has already been seen, some of it will be information that has already been given to the inspectors and some will be new and include more than just satellite photos.
I will reveal as much as I can without revealing sources or methods, Powell said.
The White House is warning that the diplomatic window for U.N. members to resolve the Iraq problem will close in a matter of "several weeks, not months," though no one should expect a move to military action anytime soon.
But unless things change there will be no other option, said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.
"We are now entering the final phase," Fleischer said. "During this final phase, what is about to unfold is a diplomatic window" for allies to consult with the United States on any possible ways to avoid war.
Added U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte: "We think the time for diplomatic action is narrowing, the diplomatic window is closing. We feel the time to take action is nearing."
Attempting to take a new track to avoid both war and its obligation to divulge its weapons program, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations argued Wednesday that the Clinton administration stated that all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were destroyed when the Clinton administration pounded Iraq in December of 1998.
Asked about Iraq's new strategy, Powell scoffed at the suggestion, calling it a "verbal trick."
"After Operation Desert Fox, a lot of damage was inflicted on the targets that the Clinton administration and military went after, but I don't think anyone would claim that [the attacks] pulled up the entire infrastructure," Powell said during a press briefing with Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri.
Earlier in the day, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to Capitol Hill to detail some of the materials that will be presented to U.N. Security Council members.
Although the two — joined by CIA Director George Tenet — refused to discuss the contents of their closed-door, classified meeting with lawmakers, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said that the information they revealed was convincing.
"There was some new information for me, particularly in the intelligence reports, of what kind of intelligence they have and how they developed the intelligence to link the Al Qaeda to Iraq, the kinds of things that have been going on in the past and certainly more recently," DeLay said.
DeLay said that Powell told lawmakers that the briefing he is providing for U.N. members is even more extensive than what was provided to congressional members. And DeLay paraphrased an assertion that has come from the lips of many administration officials recently: Time is running out for Saddam.
"I think the president is right in saying that it's obvious, unless in the next week or so that Saddam Hussein is going to have a complete change of heart and a spiritual experience, nothing's going to change," he said.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Bush accused Saddam of hiding the truth about more than 50,000 liters of anthrax, botulinum toxin and other deadly nerve agents as well as thousands of munitions.
Bush also renewed his charge of a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda terrorists blamed for the attack of Sept. 11, 2001.
At the same time, the president sought to address critics, including some members of the U.N. Security Council and Congress, who ask why the United States wants to go to war if weapons inspectors are containing Saddam.
"Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option," Bush said.
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that the United States already has what it considers a mountain of evidence, and that "making Mount Everest higher is not necessary" when it comes to proving Saddam's violations.
Nonetheless, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has already said that he wants Congress to pass another resolution before Bush declares war. Some U.N. members have also discussed whether a second resolution is necessary.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, assailed Kennedy for his remarks, saying Congress "should stay in step" with the president.
DeLay said he would be amused to watch Kennedy deliver a floor speech demanding a second resolution, adding that some legislators will never be convinced that military force may become necessary to disarm Saddam.
"There are some members that you'll never be able to convince. They don't want to go to war for any reason, and you can talk until you're blue in the face and you'll never convince them," DeLay said.
DeLay said that while exile is still an option for Saddam, a unilateral attack is not.
"If it's done under the right conditions, I would say they see that as an option. There are still possibilities out there to avoid going to war," he said.
But DeLay added: "As the secretary has said publicly, as well as in that room a while ago, when we — when the United States makes a determination with its allies, its willing allies, to go into Iraq, others will follow immediately."
President Bush is meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the nation's closest ally, on Friday. He also is consulting with world leaders and sending U.S. envoys to the region.
"I guarantee you that the minute the president makes the decision to move, the coalition will immediately explode and be huge, for the very reason that nations will want to be there to be on good terms with whoever's the government in the aftermath."
Fox News' Jim Angle, James Rosen and Teri Schultz contributed to this report.