WASHINGTON – With a "Mount Everest" of evidence that Saddam Hussein's defiance is continuing, the window for diplomacy on Iraq will be open for "weeks, not months," the White House said Thursday.
The showdown with Saddam is at a "critical juncture," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters. Fleischer's comments represent the administration's first official word of a time-limit on efforts to end the standoff peacefully.
Fleischer said President Bush still hopes the Iraqi regime can be disarmed peacefully.
Administration officials have said repeatedly that time is running out for Saddam. "The president is using this window now to engage in very busy and active diplomacy," Fleischer said. "This will take place in a period of weeks, not months."
Fleischer asserted that "there's already a Mount Everest of information" implicating Saddam even without new evidence.
Bush met Thursday with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a firm supporter of the United States' hardline position toward Iraq.
"For the sake of peace, this issue must be resolved," the president said after the meeting.
Another ally, Canada, objected to any unilateral action by the United States against Iraq.
"If one state acts by itself it risks consequences," said Bill Graham, the foreign minister of Canada. Graham met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and said afterward that the United Nations had a responsibility to force Iraq to disarm.
The British and Italians are among Bush's staunchest supporters while a number of other U.S. allies, including France and Germany, want to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time in Iraq.
Senior Bush administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the timeline could change in the fluid Iraq standoff, Bush intends to continue the consultation period until Feb. 14, when U.N. weapons inspectors give the Security Council an update on the situation in Iraq.
On Thursday afternoon, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry invited chief U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei to return to Iraq before their Feb. 14 report.
The officials said meetings would focus on "discussing a number of issues related to strengthening cooperation and transparency."
Former South African President Nelson Mandela, whom Bush has praised as a hero of human rights, joined the chorus of critics by calling Bush arrogant and implying the president was racist for threatening to bypass the United Nations and attack Iraq.
"Is it because the secretary-general of the United Nations is now a black man? They never did that when secretary-generals were white," Mandela said.
Fleischer pointed to a letter by eight European leaders reiterating their support of Bush. "The president expresses his gratitude to the many leaders of Europe who obviously feel differently" than Mandela, Fleischer said. "He understands there are going to be people who are more comfortable doing nothing about a growing menace that could turn into a holocaust."
The Saudis have been seeking a way to avoid war and have not said publicly they will allow the United States to use military facilities in Saudi Arabia. However, U.S. officials have been saying for weeks they are satisfied with the level of cooperation being offered privately and the U.S. commander who would run a war against Iraq just returned to Washington from a round of meetings with military leaders in the region, including those in Saudi Arabia.
In a letter published Thursday in newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and the Times of London, the leaders of Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Denmark paid homage to the "bravery and generosity of America" in ensuring peace in Europe.
And in a veiled attack on France and Germany, the leaders call for "unwavering determination and firm international cohesion on the part of all countries for whom freedom is precious."
In addition, Albania officials released a letter from Prime Minister Fatos Nano to Bush pledging the country's "total and unconditional" support in the war on terrorism.
The administration, meanwhile, combed intelligence data for details Powell could release to support its accusations that Iraq has a secret weapons programs and links to terrorist groups when he appears next week before the public U.N. session. The administration is working to find a way to release such information without compromising U.S. intelligence sources.
Thursday evening, Bush's schedule called for a mostly social gathering with the commanders of all the major military commands and their spouses. Talk would cover the war on terror, Afghanistan, military transformation and Iraq, but the setting was not designed as a decision-making or battle plan-reviewing session.
Also Thursday, Bush directed up to $15 million to be available to deal with the refugee crisis that any military action may produce. "Such an emergency may arise if it becomes necessary for the United States and other nations to use military force to disarm the Iraqi regime of its weapons of mass destruction," Bush said in a memo to Powell.
With allies, among the issues Bush will discuss is whether imposing a final deadline on Iraq would help spur the international community to increase pressure on Saddam. The administration also is considering a new U.N. resolution. One senior official said it could declare Iraq in violation of its obligations to disarm and authorize the use of force after a certain deadline.
Or, the official said, a deadline could be set without a resolution being proposed by the United States in the Security Council.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.