WASHINGTON - President Bush will challenge the international community tomorrow to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, opening the way for a final push to get United Nations weapons inspectors back into the country and possibly forestall U.S. military action to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.
Bush administration officials doubt Iraq will abandon its drive to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons while Hussein holds power. But Bush is prepared to listen to other world leaders on how to deal with the Iraqi dictator, officials said yesterday.
"The only thing off the table is inaction," a White House official said.
A senior Bush administration official, briefing reporters at the White House, said: "The president is not talking a military option only. ... He's talking about the full range of options that might be at our disposal."
By going through the United Nations, Bush will be bowing to U.S. allies and some key advisers who oppose the United States' going to war on its own against Hussein without first trying collective action.
But Bush seemed to signal yesterday that he would not be constrained from acting alone to protect U.S. interests if the United Nations fails to disarm Iraq.
"I'm going to the United Nations to give this speech for a reason, because I believe this is an international problem and that we must work together to deal with the problem," Bush told reporters during a visit to the Afghan Embassy. "And I am also very mindful of my job as the American president to do everything we can to protect the American people from future attack."
With Bush scheduled to lay out his case against Iraq before the U.N. General Assembly tomorrow, European officials said an international consensus is building for one last effort to pressure Iraq into readmitting weapons inspectors, who have been barred from the country since 1998.
This is the course favored by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the only major U.S. ally to endorse Bush's threat of military action against Iraq.
In a speech yesterday that diplomats said reflected a shared U.S.-British approach, Blair described Hussein as an "international outlaw" and said "action will follow" if Iraq refuses to readmit inspectors.
Many U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world have tried to discourage Bush from launching military action to oust Hussein, fearing that it could destabilize the Middle East. Two key NATO allies, France and Canada, have insisted that the U.N. Security Council approve any action against Iraq. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has said that he would not support an attack on Iraq even if the United Nations approves the action.
French President Jacques Chirac has called for the U.N. Security Council to set a three-week deadline for Iraq to readmit inspectors. If Iraq refuses, the council could then step up pressure and possibly authorize the use of force, French officials say.
But going through the United Nations increases the likelihood that other countries would help if war comes.
Foreign Minister George Papandreou of Greece said yesterday that he "wouldn't exclude" his country's participation in military action against Iraq if the Security Council backed it and alternatives had been explored.
Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior Bush advisers have publicly questioned the value of inspections, saying it is unlikely that Hussein would give the needed cooperation and that he would probably continue to hide his most dangerous weapons.
But other administration officials say the process of inspections would impede Iraq's efforts to build up its arsenal.
"It would be a lot harder with inspectors running around" for Iraq to amass weapons, a senior State Department official said.
This view was echoed in a study released this week by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank that tracks weaponry worldwide: "If inspections were resumed, Iraq's freedom of action to pursue [weapons of mass destruction] would be restricted, but not eliminated."
Bush suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of the absence of inspectors to replenish its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Cheney and other top aides said over the weekend that Iraq also was seeking the hardware needed to produce highly enriched uranium, one of two types of fissile material used in nuclear weapons. The other is plutonium.
Cheney said Iraq already has skilled nuclear scientists and a design for a nuclear weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that satellite images show "more than one sign of new construction" at suspected Iraqi nuclear sites, an IAEA spokesman said this week. The spokesman, Mark Gwozdecky, said there is no way of knowing the purpose of the construction without inspections.
A renewal of inspections would open a tense period of uncertainty during which two U.N. agencies would assess what they need to do to disarm Iraq and test Baghdad's cooperation.
If Hussein agrees, inspections would be conducted by the IAEA, which would search for signs of nuclear weapons development, and the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, created in 1999, responsible for eradicating Iraq's chemical and biological arms and missiles.
While Washington hawks have raised doubts about the resolve of UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix, he has won respect from Europeans, including British officials, who say he would be alert for signs of Iraqi obstruction.
Both agencies would hunt for evidence of Iraqi weapons development and set up a monitoring system, including cameras and sensors, designed to give an early warning if Iraq tries to restart its forbidden weapons programs.
With total Iraqi cooperation, the agencies say, their task could be completed within a year. However, agency officials warn that they could never be totally sure that Iraq was not continuing to hide weapons.
Analysts say Iraq's biological weapons pose a particular danger, because highly lethal quantities can be hidden in small places.
"To get total disarmament, you're going to need a significant period of time," said Michael Moodie of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, a think tank.
He said the inspectors would be "smart politically" to set up a series of major demands for access early in the inspections process to test Iraqi cooperation. Blix, he said, "doesn't want to get caught up in gamesmanship. He wants to make clear his seriousness to the Iraqis."
Analysts said this testing period would allow the United States to build its forces in the region so it is prepared to act if Iraq continues to defy the United Nations.
Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that in the unlikely event that Iraq cooperates with inspections, "Saddam may well be toppled by a coup or old age before Iraq is able to develop significant capabilities" for mass destruction.