WASHINGTON – President Bush's showdown with Saddam Hussein started with the goal of regime change and disarmament. Now the administration's objectives in Iraq are expanding as Bush searches for a compelling theme that will win support and blunt growing world opposition to war.
Beyond replacing Saddam and eliminating weapons of mass destruction, Bush now talks about advancing peace in the Middle East and bringing democracy to Arab lands that have long been unreceptive to political change.
Protecting America, helping ordinary Iraqis and denying Al Qaeda potential access to Iraq's weapons stockpiles are also part of Bush's expanding war rationale.
Bush has been finding his push to depose Saddam an increasingly hard sell, both at home and abroad.
U.S. polls show a majority of Americans support military action against Iraq - up to two-thirds - but are in no rush. Most want more allies in the fight and would prefer to wait for more weapons inspections and more diplomacy.
Democrats, meanwhile, are questioning the costs of the war, which could soar beyond $100 billion by some estimates. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki told Congress earlier this week that a military occupying force for a postwar Iraq could amount to several hundred thousand soldiers - though Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Thursday that was "wildly off the mark."
Bush's new vision for a transformed post-Saddam Mideast was aimed at assuring the Arab world and jittery Europeans that he is committed to a broader peace in the region.
"Success in Iraq could ... begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state," Bush said Wednesday night.
But his plan to use force still faces high hurdles in the U.N. Security Council. And this weekend millions of anti-war protesters are expected to again take to the streets in capitals and major cities around the world.
"There is no question that the Middle East peace issue is very central in the thinking of people in the region," said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the University of Maryland. "But coming at this late hour, most people I think will see the statements as just another attempt to win them over for the war."
Still, Bush's growing check list could offer a broader choice of political cover for wavering allies who want to support him but face surging anti-war sentiment from their populations. It might also help him win over skeptical Americans.
"This is part of a process. It helps the Arab states and the Europeans," said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But she said it wasn't clear how persuasive Bush's new arguments would be. She suggested Bush's latest rationale contained "an element of wishful thinking."
The United States is trying to persuade a majority of U.N. Security Council members to back a second resolution, introduced Monday, authorizing the use of force against Iraq. The resolution was co-sponsored by Britain and Spain.
It was the Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, in fact, who urged Bush to link Iraq with the Middle East peace process.
"We have to work toward peace and security in the region. And this requires quick action on our part to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Aznar told reporters during a joint news conference with Bush last weekend on the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Aznar later said he told the president how important it was to Europe and the Middle East for the United States to show engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
He also told Bush that the U.S. case wasn't being helped by comments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissing "Old Europe" and likening Germany to Libya and Cuba.
"Ministers of defense should talk less, shouldn't they?" Aznar said in an interview in Thursday's Wall Street Journal.
With things not going his way in the Security Council, Bush was exhibiting little remaining patience.
"When you commit troops to war, you must have a clear mission. Should we be forced to commit our troops because of his (Saddam's) failure to disarm, the mission will be complete disarmament, which will mean regime change," Bush said Thursday.
Actually, linking the conflict in Iraq with resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a new idea. Bush's father, the first President Bush, told Congress after the 1991 Persian Gulf War that "the time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict." But little came of that overture.