WASHINGTON – President Bush on Wednesday expressed an almost complete lack of faith in the Iraqi regime's efforts to avoid war, making another U.S.-Gulf conflict an even more distinct possibility.
"We are prepared to disarm Iraq by force," he said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute. "Either way, this danger will be removed."
Bush also remarked that the removal of Saddam Hussein would inspire peace and democracy throughout the Arab world, and that a U.S.-led war would be as much about Baghdad's defiance as the liberation of Iraq's oppressed citizenry.
"The first to benefit would be the Iraqi people themselves," he told a supportive audience.
Bush made reference to plans for rebuilding a post-Hussein Iraq, emphasizing that the U.S. military would take pains to limit destruction of the nation's infrastructure by protecting oil fields and water plants, and that Washington would encourage but not dictate the nation's government.
"The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people," Bush said. "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 Hussein loses power.
Iraq would no longer threaten to dominate the region with weapons of mass destruction, Bush said, and he accused Hussein 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.
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.
Hussein 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 an American journalist, Hussein dismissed U.S. efforts to encourage his exile.
"We will die here," Hussein told CBS.
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," Bush told the American Enterprise Institute think tank, 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 Hussein's removal. Troops will maintain security, protect Iraq's oil fields, ensure that other nations respect Iraq's existing borders and find and destroy weapons of mass destruction.
A civilian administrator will eventually take over the work of engaging Iraqis in the formation of a democratic government. The transition would last months, not weeks, the official said, adding that a more precise estimate won't be possible until it is clear how Iraq weathered an attack.
The official said the administrator would not necessarily be an American.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman said appointing an American to oversee Iraq after Hussein is removed would put the United States "in the position of an occupying power, not a liberator."
Bush said Arab nations will be inspired by democratic reform in Iraq. "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom to other nations of the region," he said.
Neither he nor his advisers explained why the Middle East peace process made no major advances while Hussein was contained in the 1990s. He did not mention other nations tied to unrest in the Middle East, such as Iran, but said removing Hussein would "be given clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated."
Bush called on the new government to end construction of settlements and reiterated his demand that Palestinians curb terrorism. He said Hussein'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.
The president told allies, "The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away."
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 Hussein'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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.