WASHINGTON – President Bush, offering new justification for war in Iraq, said Wednesday that "ending this direct and growing threat" from Saddam Hussein would pave the way for peace in the Middle East and encourage democracy throughout the Arab world.
While saying the Iraqi regime still has time to avoid war, Bush told conservative backers that U.S. troops are ready for war and spoke and length about his plans for Iraq once Saddam is gone.
"The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people," Bush told the American Enterprise Institute. "Yet we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another."
The address came at the end of a day marked by intense diplomatic activity, as Bush struggled to find votes in favor of a war-making resolution at the United Nations Security Council. The United States, Britain and Spain need nine votes and no vetoes to pass the measure.
Answering critics who say war would destabilize the region, Bush predicted there would be a "new stage for Middle East peace" once Saddam loses power.
Iraq would no longer be a threat to dominate the region with weapons of mass destruction, Bush said, and he accused Saddam of financing suicide bombers, a charge Iraq has denied.
"A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress to the lives of millions," Bush said.
There was some evidence that Bush was gaining ground at the United Nations, including signals that Mexico would back the resolution. But new obstacles emerged, including a plan by Canada to reconcile bitter differences between Bush's position and a French-Russian-German proposal to continue weapons inspections until at least July.
French President Jacques Chirac reiterated Wednesday that "we are opposed to all new resolutions," no help to Bush but also no aid to the alternative the United States opposes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters in Moscow, "We are not ready to fight, and we think that is a bad solution."
Even so, U.S. officials said intense negotiations to stave off a veto from Russia yielded some results.
Saddam is trying to convince U.N. nations that he is complying with their anti-arms resolutions, despite what the United States says is ample evidence that he is not. In a rare interview with a U.S. journalist, Saddam dismissed U.S. efforts to encourage his exile.
"We will die here," Saddam told CBS' Dan Rather.
Bush sought to prepare the nation for the costs of conflict -- both financially and in soldiers' lives, calling for a "sustained commitment from many nations, including our own."
"We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more," he told the American Enterprise Institute, where Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne, has been a senior fellow.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military will control Iraq in the short-term after Saddam's removal. Troops will maintain security, ensure that other nations respect Iraq's existing borders and find and destroy weapons of mass destruction.
Once those tasks are complete, a civilian administrator would take over and begin the work of engaging Iraqis in the formation of a democratic government. The official said the administrator would not necessarily be an American.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman said Bush's plans to appoint an American to oversee Iraq after Saddam is removed would put the United States "in the position of an occupying power, not a liberator."
Answering critics who say war in Iraq will destabilize the Middle East, Bush said: "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom to other nations of the region."
Neither he nor his advisers explained why the Middle East peace process made no major advances while Saddam was contained in the 1990s. He did not mention other nations tied to unrest in the Middle East, such as Iran, but said removing Saddam would "signal to outlaw regimes that in this new century the boundaries of civilized behavior will be respected."
Bush called on the new government to end construction of settlements and reiterated his demand that Palestinians curb terrorism. He said Saddam's removal will give both sides a chance to bury their differences in a more stable environment.
"The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat," he said.
While State Department officials fanned out across the world to press Bush's case, the president met with Azerbaijan leader Geidar Aliev. The country, 250 miles northeast of Iraq, has backed U.S. calls for Saddam's disarmament.
Bush spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy of Hungary and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Canada proposed giving Iraq until the end of March to complete a list of remaining disarmament tasks identified by U.N. weapons inspectors.
Rejecting the plan, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it "only procrastinates on a decision we all should be prepared to take."
A senior Defense Department official said it will cost $60 billion to $85 billion for military operations in Iraq and elsewhere.
Another official said the State Department and related agencies are discussing foreign aid and diplomatic activities ranging from $12 billion to $18 billion.