WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday tried to enlist a cautious nation for a war to disarm Iraq, warning that America has become a "battlefield" for the kind of terrorism supported by Saddam Hussein.
SIZE="2">Presidential press conference:
"I hope we don't have to go to war, but if we go to war, we will disarm Iraq, and if we go to war there will be a regime change and replacing this cancer inside of Iraq will be a government that represents the rights of all the people . . . ," Bush said from the stately East Room of the White House.
But Bush said his administration is in "the final stages of diplomacy" with reluctant U.N. members, and he vowed that the United States will act alone, if necessary, to disarm Saddam.
"I'm confident the American people understand that when it comes to our security, if we need to act, we will act, and we really don't need United Nations approval to do so," he said during the rare formal news conference.
Bush said the United States would push for a vote on a pending resolution authorizing force against Iraq, no matter what "the whip count" is.
"It's time for people to show their cards and let people know where they stand in relation to Saddam," Bush said.
"The fundamental question facing the Security Council is will its words mean anything, when the Security Council speaks, will the words have merit and weight?" he asked.
Throughout the news conference, Bush invoked the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamic militants crashed civilian airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., to explain his reasons for wanting to disarm Iraq.
"Iraq is part of the war on terrorism," he said. "(Saddam) provides funding and training and safe haven to terrorists, terrorists who would willingly use weapons of mass destruction against America and other peace-loving countries."
He said the events of Sept. 11 changed his strategic thinking and that of his foreign policy advisers. "Sept. 11 should tell the American people that we are now a battlefield," he said, and that weapons of mass destruction, the kind believed to be produced by Saddam, "could be deployed here at home" by terrorists.
The president rejected any suggestion that an invasion of Iraq could result in the kind of quagmire the United States found itself in Vietnam.
"Our mission is clear in Iraq," he said. "Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament. And in order to disarm, it would mean regime change. I'm confident we'll be able to achieve that objective in a way that minimizes the loss of life. No doubt there's risks in any military operation, I know that. But it's very clear what we intend to do, and our mission won't change. We have got a plan that will achieve that mission, should we need to send forces in."
Bush appeared to have tears in his eyes at one point as he responded to a question about his religious faith and the prospect of war. "I pray daily for guidance, for wisdom, for strength," he said. He said he prayed not only for American military forces but also "innocent lives" in Iraq.
Bush began the news conference with comments on the importance of the past week, with the capture of Shalid Shaikh Mohammed, the "mastermind" of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We believe his capture will further disrupt the terror network and their planning for additional attacks," the president said.
Bush, in response to a question, contrasted the threat of North Korea to that of Iraq, insisting that "the best way to deal with this is in a multilateral fashion by convincing (allies) that they must stand up to their responsibility" to stop nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula.
Bush called the press conference — the eighth formal White House news conference of his presidency and the first in four months — at a vexing moment for his administration in its showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
On the other hand, the recent arrests of key al Qaida members have buoyed hopes within the administration that the capture of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden might be within reach in the war on terrorism.
However, with more than 250,000 U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf en route to the region, Britain is the world's only major power ready to stand by Bush if he orders military strikes against Iraq in the coming weeks.
And complicating Bush's focus on Iraq is the crisis presented by the nuclear weapons program of North Korea, another part of the "axis of evil" the president identified in his first State of the Union address to Congress.
After six months of efforts to rally the world around the need for strikes against Iraq, Bush has watched much of the diplomatic underpinning for his efforts collapse in recent days.
France and Russia have threatened to veto a U.S.-backed U.N. resolution that would authorize the use of force against Iraq, forcing Bush to decide whether to press ahead for a Security Council vote next week, withdraw the proposed measure or seek a compromise.
Germany, another Security Council member, has said it would vote against the resolution, and China reiterated its own reservations about the measure on Thursday.
Turkey's parliament has rejected a proposal, months in the planning, under which 62,000 U.S. troops would use Turkey as a springboard for a possible invasion of northern Iraq, forcing Bush to huddle with his top generals in pursuit of a late-hour alternative.
And U.S. tensions with North Korea have steadily and dangerously escalated in the months since Bush ruled out direct talks with Pyongyang over the renewal of its secret nuclear weapons program, an approach that has been openly criticized by China and South Korea, two key regional actors.
Public opinion polls show that most Americans support Bush's plan to disarm Iraq, by force if needed. But many have serious reservations about war if it is not supported by the United Nations. Also, the president's once soaring political popularity has slumped since the standoff with Iraq. In a Quinnipac poll released Thursday, 48 percent of registered voters preferred the "as-yet-unnamed" Democratic presidential nominee while 44 percent said they would vote for Bush - the first time the president has trailed in such a poll since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Because formal news conferences are so rare in the Bush presidency, just the scheduling of the event sparked rumors in the capital that Bush would be announcing the capture of bin Laden, whose al Qaida group is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Agencies throughout the government spent the day denying such a development.
Earlier, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush had a lot to prove in his press conference.
"Obviously, the case has not been made. It has not been made to the American people. It has not been made to the world community. It has not been made to the Security Council that going to war now is the best way to disarm Iraq," she said.
The time to attack is "when we have exhausted all diplomatic and technological and inspection remedies that are available to us," Pelosi said. "We all agree that Saddam Hussein acts outside the circle of civilized human behavior, that he must be stopped, that he must be disarmed. But the question remains, is going to war now the best way to do that?"
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., acknowledged that Senate Democrats are deeply divided over Iraq, with opinions that range from an unwavering desire for peace to strong support for the Bush administration.
"I think there is virtual unanimity, however, in our express concern about the approach the administration has used," Daschle said. "In our view, they have failed diplomatically. In our view, they are rushing to war without adequate concern for the ramifications of doing so unilaterally or with a very small coalition of nations."