NEW YORK – The issue over whether or not the United States should use military force to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is starting to heat up and the debate should be fully flamed when Congress returns from its August recess next week.
For most of August, the debate on Iraq was primarily among Republicans. Democrats clung to the sidelines, trying to keep voters' attention focused on domestic issues.
But that soon could change.
It's becoming increasingly hard for Congress to ignore the war drumbeat coming from the Bush administration. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are urging President Bush to seek their approval before using U.S. forces to attack Iraq.
Bush shouldn't do it "with a wink and a nod to Congress," says Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., cites a "gap in the facts" from the administration -- and said he wants it filled.
Hearings on Iraq are expected in the coming weeks.
The administration contends congressional authority isn't required to attack Iraq. But Bush's advisers have concluded that it would be judicious to seek some expression of congressional support if such a decision is made.
And with control of both the House and the Senate at stake in this year's midterm elections, both parties are edgy.
In recent weeks, Saddam has seemed a proxy of sorts for the absent Usama bin Laden, overtaking him in the administration's rhetoric as the No. 1 evildoer.
"Should all his ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous, for the Middle East, for the United States and for the peace of the world," Vice President Dick Cheney told Korean War veterans last week.
Polls show the prospect of war with Iraq isn't on the public's mind nearly as much as the shaky economy and corporate corruption. And Democrats hope to keep it that way.
"The nation's engagement is considerably less than it was in the weeks before the Persian Gulf War," said analyst Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman suggests some of Bush's advisers are intentionally inflaming the debate. "I think Karl Rove may mistakenly think this gives Republicans political advantage," Mellman said, referring to Bush's chief political operative.
Obviously, if and when there's a conflict with Iraq, that's going to dominate people's attention. Now, it's only so much talk," Mellman said.
The White House denies it is trying to roil the waters by constantly talking about Saddam.
"When the president makes a decision, Congress, the public, our friends and allies will be involved," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he takes the administration at its word and expects a congressional consensus to emerge on the use of force.
"The issue becomes when and by what tactics," he said. "Everybody agrees that Saddam is a bad actor and everybody believes the world would be a better place if he was out."
Democratic leaders have generally agreed that Saddam must go, but have been vague on details. "We should deal with it diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. He also insists that Bush get prior congressional approval if taking the military option.
"I think that most Democrats and Republicans who follow these things agree that Saddam is a threat, and that this is a serious undertaking that deserves a good deal of discussion and consideration," said Sandy Berger, former national security adviser to President Clinton.
"The administration is pretty far out in terms of making clear that they're going to take some action," Berger added. "But I don't know that they have a timetable at this point or a precise strategy."
Although the Bush administration would like international support for a war against Iraq, U.S. officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have said it is not necessary to move forward.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Saturday he didn't yet know how best to ensure Saddam does not maintain weapons of mass destruction. He insisted the world would not stand by while the Iraqi leader violated U.N. resolutions on the weapons, but said he had not decided whether military action was the way to stop him.
"Doing nothing about Iraq's breach of these U.N. resolutions is not an option," Blair told reporters. "That's the only decision that's been taken so far. What we do about that is an open question."
Concern is growing among the British public and Blair's own Labor Party about participating in any U.S. offensive aimed at toppling Saddam.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are saying the Iraqi military is building up the largest defenses around the city since the Gulf War.
Spurred to action by American threats of attack, Iraqi earthmovers are digging defensive positions for tanks, artillery and troops, defense and other officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Some military units are spreading out their heavy equipment to make it more difficult to target, and anti-aircraft defenses are being moved to improve the protection of the Iraqi capital from U.S. airstrikes, officials said.
"The rhetoric they are hearing coming from the United States -- they're taking it very, very seriously," said a Bush administration official.
Two polls released Friday showed Americans wary of a potential war with Iraq but the White House insisted President Bush was keeping "his options open" and would involve the Congress, allies and the public in any decision.
A poll for Time Magazine and CNN found that 51 percent of those surveyed supported a U.S. ground invasion of Iraq, while 40 percent opposed it. Another one from Newsweek showed 62 percent would support military force against Iraq but fewer than half, 49 percent, would support sending large numbers of ground troops into Iraq.
A State Department senior official said Friday that Secretary of State Colin Powell favors a cautious approach to the Iraq issue, taking into account the level of international support. Another U.S. official said Powell was laying low until Bush decides how he intends to convert his policy of "regime change" into a plan of action.
But also on Friday, a spokesman for President Bush reiterated the president’s stance that Saddam's got to go.
"The president hasn't made a decision about any particular course of action," McClellan said. "Our policy is one of regime change, and when it comes to that, the president is keeping his options open."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.