WASHINGTON – Iraqis would be much better off without Saddam Hussein as their leader, Secretary of State Colin Powell says, seeming to back away from the long-held U.S. policy that Saddam must go.
There was no official change in policy, but Powell appeared in comments Sunday to play down the demand that the Iraqi president be deposed. He said the United States is presenting a resolution to the U.N. Security Council early this week to set stringent guidelines for new inspections of Iraq's weapons programs. He said he expects passage.
"We think the Iraqi people would be a lot better off with a different leader, a different regime," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press. "But the principal offense here is weapons of mass destruction, and that's what this resolution is working on. The major issue before us is disarmament."
"The issue right now is not even how tough an inspection regime is or isn't," Powell said. "The question is, will Saddam and the Iraqi regime cooperate — really, really cooperate — and let the inspections do their job.
"All we are interested in is getting rid of those weapons of mass destruction."
Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, agreed that "the goal here is to disarm Saddam Hussein. And in order to do that, we are going to have to test his willingness to cooperate this time around," she said on CNN's Late Edition.
"Either we disarm him, or he disarms himself by cooperating, or we're going to have to disarm him," Rice said.
She was not asked whether "regime change" remains policy, and she did not mention it.
Other administration officials have sent different signals about Saddam's ability to retain power.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton, Powell's chief disarmament aide, said last week that not only Saddam but Iraqis "who are fundamentally a part of Saddam's regime" would have to go.
"There will be no stability in the region until he's gone," Bolton said.
Bush said on Oct. 7 that he was "not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein."
Powell was an early proponent of the regime-change policy. He told the House International Relations Committee on March 7, 2001, that the administration was considering such a policy. Last February, he told the same committee that "regime change" was policy, and the United States "might have to do it alone."
Powell began backing away in an Oct. 2 interview with USA Today's editorial board. Should Iraq be fully disarmed, he said, "Then in effect you have a different kind of regime no matter who's in Baghdad."
On Sunday, he said, "If the inspectors do their job, and we can satisfy the world community that they are disarmed, that's one path. If we can't satisfy the world community that they are disarmed, that takes us down another path."
On ABC's This Week, Powell put it this way: "Either Iraq cooperates, and we get this disarmament done through peaceful means; or they do not cooperate, and we will use other means to get the job done."
The United States says Iraq has biological and chemical weapons and could be close to making nuclear arms. Congress has given Bush authority to use military force, after coordinating with the United Nations to see whether inspections can be made to work.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, noting the U.S. diplomatic efforts at the United Nations, said the administration was wisely turning away from its go-it-alone approach to foreign affairs.
Administration officials, he said, "clearly have learned the unilateral, dictatorial approach ... did not work, and I think they've accepted it," Daschle, D-S.D., told Fox News Sunday.
He said the reaction from around the world to the earlier policy has been "almost universally negative," and only over the past few months "have we realized that there is a value in this multilateral approach."