WASHINGTON – Though the Bush administration has made clear its goal is to get rid of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, going it alone if necessary, several officials said Tuesday that military action is not imminent.
"I can assure you that no decisions have been made beyond the first phase of the war on terrorism," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday, referring to the war in Afghanistan where American forces are still engaged in routing out terrorist blocs.
Talking to a Senate panel Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell used cautious terms to deny any plans are in the works to rout dictatorial governments in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the "axis of evil" described by President Bush in his State of the Union address last month.
"He has no plan on his desk right now to begin a war with any nation," Powell said.
Powell, who was defending the administration's request for $8.1 billion for State Department and foreign service operations, said a "regime change" in Baghdad could occur through natural causes.
Comparing himself to Saddam — the Iraqi leader and Powell are the same age — Powell said he is constantly examining the actuarial tables used to calculate life expectancy.
"I believe that I am in better shape than he is," Powell added.
But Bush's remarks in his State of the Union speech and comments by other officials have raised expectations that the administration is on the verge of moving into phase two of the war against terrorism.
Powell told members of Congress some other steps need to come first:
"I think most people understand, the president is not looking for a war. We're looking for peace ... And I think President Bush has shown leadership in pointing it out so clearly. And in the actions that we have taken previously, the policies that we are following, to see if dialog is possible, to see if peaceful solutions are possible, and at the same time not ignore ultimate responsibilities if diplomacy and political action is not successful," he said.
Officials tell Fox News that the president has asked military planners to work up a list of "aggressive" options against Iraq, but Powell was warned by one Democratic senator not to get too aggressive.
"The president should seek a declaration of war from Congress before unleashing our military might on any one of these sovereign states," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate's self-appointed constitutional scholar.
The talk of an "axis of evil" also caused what one official called "heartburn among our allies" and even criticism from some Republicans who are concerned with improving relations. Powell addressed those concerns by making a distinction between Iraq and the other two nations the president identified.
"The nation that is of perhaps higher level of concern than others is Iraq. With respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea, there's no plan to start a war with these nations. We want to see a dialog."
But as the United States coaxes nations to step up diplomatic pressure on nations that are spreading dangerous weapons technology, some officials have said that some of the "panic" among other nations is what the president hoped to achieve.
"The president believes that moral clarity makes for strong diplomacy, and that creates better results, and as an example... Ronald Reagan said to (Soviet Leader) Mikhail Gorbachev, 'Tear down this wall.' He didn't say, 'Would you mind making it a little shorter?' He spoke with moral clarity, and as a result the world is a better place," Powell said. "So, too, with President Bush."
On Bush's trip to Asia next week, Powell said the president will renew an offer to hold talks with North Korea and he hopes for eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.