WASHINGTON – Weighing whether to set a deadline for Saddam Hussein to disarm, the Bush administration offered Wednesday to try to help find a haven for the Iraqi president and his "henchmen" as a way to avert war.
Throughout the protracted crisis with Iraq the idea of exile for Saddam has been raised in the Arab world as a possible way to avoid war.
And Arab diplomats said earlier this month that the idea had been presented to Saddam. But denials have cropped up as promptly as new countries have been suggested as havens, and many experts say they do not believe the Iraqi president would quit Baghdad.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, at a State Department news conference, said, "If he were to leave the country and take some of his family members with him and others in the leading elite that have been responsible for so much trouble during the course of his regime, we would, I am sure, try to help find a place for them to go."
Asked if the United States would support giving Saddam immunity from prosecution as a war criminal, Powell said that was hypothetical at this point and that he was not prepared to talk about it.
Later, the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, calling Saddam's close aides "henchmen," said exile was only "an idea floating out there" that did not seem to be under serious consideration.
But time appeared to be running out, and State Department officials said an exile scenario was not under serious consideration. "We're entering the final phase" and only a narrow "diplomatic window" remained open, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Powell called Saddam a liar in an interview with Britain's ITN television and said the Iraqi leader could avert war right away if he "understood the crisis" and disclosed he had hidden weapons.
"He's got a short period of time left to do that," Powell said.
With several world leaders hurrying to Washington for last-minute consultations, and a second round of talks set for next week in New York, Bush's National Security Council culled intelligence data for Powell to present next Wednesday in a public U.N. session.
Powell intends to demonstrate a concerted effort by Iraq to conceal its weapons of mass destruction from U.N. inspectors as well as Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and other terror groups.
Some of the information was known to have been provided by China, some by terror suspects detained in Afghanistan. Photographs may be made public, a senior U.S. official said.
But at the United Nations, the United States drew support from only two members of the 15-member Security Council, Spain and Bulgaria. Eleven others held out for giving U.N. inspectors more time to hunt for illicit arms, diplomats said.
Powell, in an interview with ZDF Television of Germany, said, "It's still a wonderment to us why more people don't recognize" that Saddam has chemical and biological weapons and has been trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Powell also again raised the possibility of the United States acting against Iraq without Council support. He said that after consultations next week the administration will make a judgment on whether the next step should be a U.N. resolution "or whether it is some other action that we might feel obliged to take."
President Bush, in a speech in Grand Rapids, Mich., that dealt mostly with his economic policy, dismissed as impractical simply containing Saddam Hussein -- a strategy some Europeans are inclined to favor in preference to war.
That, Bush said, could leave Iraq free to join with terrorists to attack the United States "and never leave a fingerprint behind."
"In my judgment you don't contain Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "You don't hope that therapy will somehow change his evil mind."
Powell said the evidence he intended to present next Wednesday in New York would "fill in some of the gaps" between what the United States knew and what has been reported by U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. "Some of it will be new information that was really not relevant to the inspectors' work," he said.
Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told House members at a closed-door briefing that the administration was reviewing intelligence to determine what could be released without compromising intelligence sources or methods. The task is complicated by the fact that a photograph that is meaningful to intelligence officers may appear to an untrained observer as simply a bunch of rooftops, a senior official said.
Rumsfeld and Powell discussed with lawmakers the possibility of Saddam going into exile, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., said of the presentation by Powell and Rumsfeld that there was nothing to change his mind that a clear case had not been made for a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq.
Rumsfeld, at a Pentagon news conference, said if Bush declares all peaceful means have been exhausted, "other countries will stand up and say, 'We want to be helping' and they will do it because they will see that ... force will have to be used."
Rumsfeld also said he gave Bush, months ago, a long list of risks of using military force against Iraq including the possibility that Saddam would launch gas or germ attacks. He said the chance of Saddam using chemical or biological weapons was greater than in the 1991 Gulf War because the U.S. objective this time would be to destroy his regime.
The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud, was rushing to Washington to meet with Bush and Powell on Thursday. Bush also planned to meet Thursday with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and on Friday at Camp David with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the closest U.S. ally.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.