WASHINGTON – Saddam Hussein and his inner circle would be legitimate targets for U.S. forces in a war on Iraq, the Bush administration says.
"If we go to war in Iraq, and hostilities result, command and control and top generals, people who are in charge of fighting the war to kill the United States' troops, cannot assume they will be safe," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday. "If you go to war, command and control are legitimate targets under international law."
Asked whether that could mean Saddam, Fleischer replied, "Of course."
A 1976 ban on assassinating foreign leaders was put into place by President Ford in response to criticism of CIA-backed plots in the 1960s and 1970s. President Reagan extended the executive order in 1981 to include hired assassins.
President Bush could overturn the ban by signing a document, but Fleischer declined to say whether he is considering doing so.
Bush called Saddam "a master of disguise and delay" Wednesday and mocked the Iraqi leader for disclosing some weapons that he'd previously denied were in his arsenal.
On a day in which the White House threatened Saddam with trial as a war criminal in the event of war, Bush said, "The danger with Iraq is that he can strike in the neighborhood and the danger with Iraq is that he has got the willingness and capacity to train Al Qaeda type organizations and provide them with equipment to hurt Americans."
Saddam "will be disarmed one way or the other," the president declared as his administration prepared for another faceoff at the United Nations on a resolution designed to bring about the disarmament of Iraq.
In remarks before the Latino Coalition, however, Bush stopped short of repeating previous claims of an already existing link between Iraq and Al Qaeda terrorists. But he did say, "The world has waited a long time for Mr. Saddam Hussein to disarm."
From the speech, Bush stepped into a meeting with President Geidar Aliev of Azerbaijan, a country 250 miles northeast of Iraq, which has backed the U.S. call for Iraq's disarmament.
On Tuesday, Bush said that if the Iraqi president and his generals "take innocent life, if they destroy infrastructure, they will be held accountable as war criminals."
Bush plans a speech on Iraq late Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank from which he drew many of his aides.
He is expected to argue that Saddam is a menace to the Iraqi people and getting rid of him would make the Middle East more stable.
Offering Congress and the American public a peek into war and postwar preparations, the Army's top general said Tuesday that a military occupying force could total several hundred thousand soldiers.
Iraq is "a piece of geography that's fairly significant," Gen. Eric K. Shinseki said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Any postwar occupying force, he said, would have to be big enough to maintain safety in a country with "ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems."
Shinseki said he couldn't give specific numbers of the size of an occupation force but would rely on the recommendations of commanders in the region.
"How about a range?" asked Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the committee.
"I would say that what's been mobilized to this point, something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers," the general said. "Assistance from friends and allies would be helpful."
Afterward, Levin called Shinseki's estimate "very sobering."
In a speech prepared for Wednesday delivery to the Council on Foreign Relations, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is calling on the Bush administration to work with the United Nations to name an international administrator to oversee reconstruction of Iraq.
A U.S. civilian administrator "would put America in the position of an occupying power, not a liberator," says Lieberman, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. "And it may well widen the gulf between the United States and the Arab world."
In northern Iraq, which was pried from Saddam's control to protect Kurdish civilians after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, White House and State Department officials were holding a meeting with political opponents of Saddam's government.
Zalmay Khalilzad, of the National Security Council staff, and David Pearce, who is in charge of the Iraq desk at the State Department, were helping to plan the kind of government that would take over in Baghdad after an ouster of Saddam.
The anti-Saddam Iraqis are a diverse group, with sometimes conflicting interests. Kurdish leaders, for example, are uneasy with U.S. plans to station troops in northern Iraq in the event of war.
To Iraq's north, Turkey fears that Iraqi Kurds would try to create their own state if Saddam was overthrown, encouraging secession by Turkey's own Kurdish minority.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Bush administration supports the territorial integrity of Iraq — meaning it was opposed to the country's breakup — and multiethnic rule in Baghdad.
Bush, meanwhile, predicted Saddam would try to "fool the world one more time," by disclosing some weapons that he had previously denied having. But the president insisted the only way the Iraqi leader could avoid war was "full disarmament. The man has been told to disarm. For the sake of peace, he must completely disarm."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.