WASHINGTON – The U.S. military buildup for war topped 200,000 troops in the Gulf region Thursday while inside Iraq Saddam Hussein was said to be moving some of his best-trained forces into new positions.
President Bush called anew for Saddam's "total, complete disarmament" and defended his father for stopping short of ousting the Iraqi president in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Arab leaders who are planning to hold a summit meeting this weekend "to issue the strongest possible statement" to Saddam that he must comply with U.N. Security Council disarmament resolutions. Powell also said the Arab League meeting in Egypt might consider urging Saddam to "step down and get out of the way and let some responsible leadership take over in Baghdad."
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld rejected the U.S. Army chief's estimate this week that several hundred thousand troops would be needed for a post-Saddam occupying force in Iraq.
"The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far off the mark," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference.
Estimating how much a war with Iraq would cost is impossible, Rumsfeld said during a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"If you don't know if it's going to last six days, six weeks or six months, how in the world can you come up with a cost estimate?" Rumsfeld said. "There are so many variables that the numbers of possible point answers create a range that simply isn't useful."
Administration officials said that in recent days members of Iraq's northernmost Republican Guard division have moved south in what the United States interpreted as a further effort to protect Saddam's power centers -- his hometown of Tikrit and the capital of Baghdad 100 miles south.
Significant parts of the Adnan Republican Guard division, based near the northern city of Mosul, were moving toward Tikrit, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Word on that movement followed statements by a senior defense official Wednesday that Saddam also has concentrated a substantial number of forces around the Baghdad area in an attempt to draw U.S. forces into high-risk urban combat.
Other such preparations included digging trenches that could be filled with oil to create fires in an attempt to make airstrikes more difficult, Pentagon officials said. Iraq has recently tested a burning trench, the officials said.
The repositioning would leave only one full Republican Guard division in northern Iraq to oppose any invasion from the north by U.S. and Turkish forces as well as forces of Iraq's Kurdish minority, the U.S. officials noted. Seven of Iraq's regular army divisions remain in the north, but they are not as well-equipped and trained as the guard.
It is widely believed that American war plans call for the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, supported by elements of the 1st Infantry Division, to gather in Turkey to Iraq's north for a possible thrust south toward Tikrit and Baghdad.
But the plan to base 60,000 American combat troops in Turkey remained stalled. Turkey's ruling party Thursday delayed a vote on the proposal.
The Pentagon said the number of American troops now deployed to the region stood at 225,000, which includes some 16,000 in and around Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa pursuing the war against Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
As part of that buildup, the Navy announced Thursday that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its battle group would leave San Diego for the Gulf on March 3. The Nimitz is the sixth of America's 12 aircraft carriers to be sent to the region.
Also, Pentagon officials said B-2 stealth bombers have been ordered to move from their base in Missouri to overseas bases closer to Iraq: a base in Britain and a British base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
"The purpose of flowing forces is to demonstrate the seroiusness of purpose of the international community," to disarm Iraq, Rumsfeld said.
Bush said he was closely watching to see whether Saddam complies with an order to start destroying his Al Samoud 2 missiles by Saturday. A panel of international experts determined earlier this month that the missiles exceed the 93-mile range limit set by the U.N. Security Council at the end of the Gulf War.
"The discussion about these rockets is part of his campaign of deception," Bush said. "See, he'll say, 'I'm not going to destroy the rockets,' and then he'll have a change of mind this weekend and destroy the rockets and say, 'I've disarmed."'
In fact, a U.N. diplomat told The Associated Press late Thursday that Iraq had agreed "in principle" to destroy the missiles.
In an interview with USA Today for Friday editions, Bush suggested that he viewed war as inevitable. "My attitude about Saddam Hussein is that if he had any intention of disarming, he would have disarmed," Bush said. "We will disarm him now." Nevertheless, Bush reiterated that war was his "last option."
Bush addressed the issue in the Oval Office while sitting alongside Karzai, who thanked Americans for their support in rebuilding Afghanistan.
A day earlier, Bush argued in a nationally televised address that removing Saddam from Iraq would help bring peace to the Middle East and inspire the Arab world to embrace democracy. His father, then-President George H.W. Bush, ordered forces against Saddam 12 years ago when the issue was not disarmament.
"That was not the mission in 1991," the president said. "The mission ... was to liberate Kuwait."
Bush also spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Iraq and North Korea. Bush wants to make sure Russia won't veto a new U.S.-led U.N. resolution on Iraq.
Powell, speaking after a U.S.-European Union ministerial meeting, said he believes the administration can present a "strong enough argument" to win votes if Saddam shows no indication he is complying with disarmament demands.