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Bush Calls Iraq Imminent Threat

Trusting in Hussein's Restraint 'Is Not an Option,' President Says

January 29, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A somber and steely President Bush, speaking to a skeptical world Tuesday in his State of the Union address, provided a forceful and detailed denunciation of Iraq, promising new evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime poses an imminent danger to the world and demanding the United Nations convene in just one week to consider the threat.

But the president made clear his decision whether to attack Iraq would not hinge on U.N. approval.

"All free nations have a stake in preventing sudden and catastrophic attack. We are asking them to join us, and many are doing so," the president said. "Yet the course of this nation does not depend on the decision of others."

Calls have mounted in recent weeks for the president to make a better case for going to war. In response, Bush argued that use of force is not only justified but necessary, and that the threat is not only real but imminent.

"If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late," Bush said. "Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option."

Bush said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will travel to the United Nations on Feb. 5 armed with new intelligence that he will share with the Security Council.

The president provided a few new intelligence details himself. He accused Iraq of running a kind of covert operation against the U.N. inspectors now at work to verify the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- sanitizing inspection sites before their arrival, moving documents around and spying on the inspectors to thwart their efforts. Iraq ran a similar operation in the 1990s, but it was the first such allegation that it is happening again.

Bush also alleged that not only are Iraqi agents intimidating weapons scientists, they are posing as scientists to deceive U.N. inspectors. He repeated in detail previous charges that Hussein has failed to account for tons of deadly chemical and biological weapons and tortured and killed his own people into submission. And he reprised the theological language that has discomfited some allies.

"If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning," Bush said.

Ever since Bush first challenged the United Nations in September to confront Iraq, the administration has feared the world body could become mired in an inspections program without clear successes or failures. As a result, the president's attempt to accelerate U.N. deliberations appeared aimed at avoiding that fate and bringing the matter to a head sooner than many members would like.

Response to the speech was effusive in the chamber packed with lawmakers from both houses of Congress, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and carefully chosen guests. The hourlong speech was interrupted by applause 73 times.

But afterward, some said the speech failed to end the debate on whether to go to war.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he would introduce a resolution today that would require Bush to come back to Congress and present "convincing evidence of an imminent threat" before U.S. troops are sent to war with Iraq. Congress approved a resolution last fall authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq, and that measure did not require a second review.

"Much has changed in the many months since Congress last debated war with Iraq," Kennedy said. "Another vote is necessary if the time has come for war."

Some Republicans agreed that the president has more work to do to persuade voters and allies.

"In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important for President Bush to continue his dialogue with the American people and our allies regarding the threat that Iraq poses," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The first half of the speech hopscotched through the president's domestic policy proposals. Bush reiterated his plans for $670 billion in tax cuts to spur growth and create jobs. He urged Medicare reform to rein in costs and make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors. And he outlined new initiatives on the environment and AIDS.

The president also proposed forming a new center to merge and analyze all information about threats against the nation. Called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, it would bring together intelligence collected domestically and overseas, and ensure that information is shared among the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

The objective, officials said, is to fix one of the most critical problems spotlighted by the Sept. 11 attacks: a failure by the CIA, the FBI and other agencies to share information and connect intelligence "dots."

Experts said the success of the proposal will depend on whether the new center truly has authority to view raw intelligence from across the spy community and direct resources and operatives. Existing counter-terrorism centers at the CIA and FBI "always have to negotiate" for resources and cooperation, a congressional aide said.

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