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Congress Debates War Plans

Resolution: Lawmakers take up Iraq issue but uncertainty remains over whether the nation is really on the cusp of military action.


WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday joined the Senate in the sobering debate over authorizing the use of military force against Iraq, but a marked sense of uncertainty hangs over both chambers about whether the nation is, in fact, on the brink of war.

President Bush has insisted he has not decided whether he would use military force even if Congress authorizes it, and his top national security aides swarmed Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers that the administration will go to war only if diplomatic efforts aimed at Iraq fail.

"War is the last resort," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said as he headed into meetings with lawmakers at the Capitol. "I want to reassure the American people that neither the president nor Congress is leaping into something without thinking."

In a letter made public Tuesday, the CIA said the probability of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein initiating an unprovoked attack in the near future, while he is still building an arsenal, is low.

But if attacked, he would likely respond with biological or chemical weapons. The letter was signed on behalf of CIA Director George J. Tenet and sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of a document declassification.

Tenet on Tuesday denied the letter contradicted the imminent nature of the Iraqi threat as described by President Bush in his televised speech Monday night.

"Although we think the chances of Saddam initiating a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack at this moment are low--in part because it would constitute an admission that he possesses WMD--there is no question that the likelihood of Saddam using WMD against the United States or our allies in the region for blackmail, deterrence or otherwise grows as his arsenal continues to build."

As debate opened in the House and continued in the Senate on the authority Bush seeks, his allies argued that the best way to avoid the need for a U.S.-led military strike is to deliver a strong bipartisan vote in support of the administration's policy. They said that would strengthen Powell's hand in building an international coalition to stand up to Hussein and force disarmament of his suspected weapons of mass destruction.

"It is through a strong show of support for this joint resolution that war can best be avoided," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) said. "Against such an implacable foe as Saddam Hussein, peace can only be achieved through strength--the strength of conviction as much as the strength of arms. It is only when the Iraqi dictator is certain of our resolve and our ability that peace becomes possible."

But many hawks in Congress and the administration say it is plain that, based on Hussein's record of noncompliance with U.N. mandates, the use of force against his regime is almost inevitable.

"Saddam Hussein's track record is he's never complied," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Everyone understands that if Saddam Hussein doesn't comply, this means that the president can and probably will take military action."

And some antiwar lawmakers argue that, despite the administration's insistence that war is a last resort, the saber-rattling of recent months puts the United States irretrievably on the road to war.

"Preparing for war ensures it will truly happen," said Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), one of three antiwar Democrats who traveled recently to Baghdad.

Lawmakers on all sides predict Bush will win the power he seeks to deal with Iraq when Congress takes its final vote on the issue. That vote is expected Thursday in the House, and perhaps by week's end in the Senate.

Still, top administration officials have thrown themselves into lobbying wavering members to pump up Bush's margin of victory.

Powell lunched with Senate Republicans on Tuesday then met with uncommitted House Democrats. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice briefed senators of both parties. A delegation of House fence-sitters was brought to the Pentagon for a breakfast briefing by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), one of those invited to the Pentagon, said the briefing--and Bush's speech on Iraq Monday night--helped "move me further" toward supporting the president's position.

The uncertainty about whether Bush will take military action against Iraq underscores the unusual ambiguity of the resolution before Congress. Bush is asking for authority to wage a war he has not yet decided to mount, so Congress is voting simply to allow Bush to decide later whether to attack.

Some of the resolution's foes sought to focus on that point.

"The president is asking Congress to delegate its constitutional power to declare war before he has decided we need to go to war," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Tuesday. "But he has not adequately explained what this war will look like."

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