WASHINGTON - Delivering a stark message to Americans, President Bush said last night that the United States stands on the brink of war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein poses a deadly threat to the nation Bush has sworn to defend.
"I think the threat is real," Bush said, speaking at the second prime-time news conference of his presidency. "And since I believe the threat is real and since my most important job is to protect the security of the American people, that is precisely what we'll do."
The president said he had made no final decision to invade Iraq and stressed that he wants to avoid war. But he held out little hope that Hussein's regime would fully disarm and allow a peaceful solution, saying "diplomacy hasn't worked."
His appearance, in the formal East Room of the White House, came on the eve of a crucial United Nations meeting. Today, the chief U.N. weapons inspectors will report to the Security Council on Iraq's level of cooperation with demands that it disarm. The council could vote within days on a U.S.-backed resolution that would authorize war but that faces much international resistance.
The president dismissed questions that have arisen in recent days about whether the United States, if it lacked enough Security Council support to authorize force, might attack Iraq without calling for a council vote.
"No matter what the whip count is, we're calling for the vote," he said. "It is time for people to show their cards to let the world know where they stand when it comes to Saddam."
In a 40-minute exchange with reporters that focused solely on U.S. foreign policy, Bush also said he remained hopeful that the gathering nuclear crisis in North Korea could be resolved peacefully.
Reflecting the gravity of the moment, the president held a nighttime news conference that was televised to the nation. It was the second time in eight days that all the major television networks provided him with an evening slot to discuss the Iraq crisis.
With opposition to war growing louder around the world, the president seemed determined to forcefully restate his case for invading Iraq and to underscore his position - which has infuriated many other world leaders - that America is poised to attack regardless of whether it has substantial international support.
Bush, appearing confident but far less animated than usual, seemed to be directing his message less to world diplomats than to American viewers at home. A majority of Americans say in polls that they back military action to disarm Hussein. At the same time, many of those who favor military action say they worry about fighting a war if key U.S. allies refuse to support it.
The president said he respected the views of U.S. allies and others who oppose his insistence that Hussein must disarm now or face imminent attack. But he seemed to suggest to Americans that they were paying too much attention to the opinions of other countries.
He reminded the nation of the pain, loss of life and economic hardships America suffered as a result of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And he called Hussein "a wealthy patron and protector" of terrorists who are in search of weapons and funding.
"The cost of the attacks on America on Sept. 11 were enormous," Bush said. "They were significant. And I'm not willing to take that chance again."
Bush bluntly declared that America is not dependent on the will of other nations to protect itself.
"When it comes to our security," he said, "we really don't need anybody's permission."
The president appeared to calculate that at this point in the crisis, it was time to appeal to Americans for their trust that he is acting in their interest and that the days of laying out detailed evidence of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction have passed.
Bush has reached a fateful juncture in his presidency, one fraught with high risk and unpredictable consequences. All signs suggest he is on the verge of ordering an invasion of a country that represents a threat but has not provoked war in any obvious way.
The president lacks the imperative for war that his father had in 1991, when Iraq had invaded Kuwait, its sovereign neighbor. And the younger Bush faces a more dangerous world, with the threat of terrorist attacks against Americans and a building nuclear crisis in North Korea.
At the news conference, the president was asked whether he was concerned that a war with Iraq might revisit the grief of the Vietnam War, which cost more than 50,000 American lives and left in place the Communist regime that American leaders had vowed to depose. Bush said he would not lead the country down the same path.
"Our mission is clear in Iraq," he said.
While strongly signaling for months that Hussein's removal would be part of any invasion, the president said so more clearly than ever last night.
"Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear - disarmament. And in order to disarm, it would mean regime change," he said.
The president did not directly address a question that asked him whether the success of a war in Iraq would hinge on whether Hussein was captured or killed.
He stressed anew that while war with Iraq seems inevitable, he is hopeful that the crisis with North Korea can be solved diplomatically. North Korea is pursuing a nuclear weapons program and is led by a man, Kim Jong Il, whose regime has publicly threatened war against the United States.
The president said that China, South Korea and Japan all have a enormous stake in whether North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and that those nations "must stand up to their responsibility."
Thus far, Bush has refused to negotiate directly with the North Koreans, insisting that America will not be "blackmailed" by Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons and that North Korea must back away from its pursuit before expecting any humanitarian aid.
But the president held out a carrot last night to the North Korean leader.
"Should he want help in easing the suffering of the North Korean people," Bush said, "the best way to achieve that help is to not proceed forward" with a nuclear program.
Asked about Turkey's refusal so far to allow U.S. troops to use its bases as a northern launching pad to invade Iraq, Bush said Turkey's decision "won't cause any more hardship for our troops. I'm confident of that."
He said repeatedly that the diplomatic window remains open, but barely. And he said that should Hussein decide on his own to leave Iraq and go into exile, "That would be fine with me - just so long as Iraq disarms after he's exiled."
Still, lacking enough votes on the Security Council to authorize force now, Bush showed a hint of flexibility. He did not rule out setting a deadline for Hussein to disarm before war begins, as Britain, America's closest ally on Iraq, has proposed. But Bush said any such deadline must show "finality," a reference to some form of trigger for military force if Hussein remained defiant.
Bush has sent more than 200,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region - forces ready to launch a war in Iraq whenever Bush would give an order, military officials say. The president promised that he would give journalists, humanitarian workers and U.N. weapons inspectors who are still in Iraq enough warning to leave before any U.S.-led attack begins.
White House officials stressed that last night's news conference was not Bush's final opportunity to make his case for war to the American people. Officials have signaled that before any war begins, Bush will deliver a major address elaborating on his decision.
The only other time Bush has held a prime-time presidential news conference was exactly a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The president had ordered bombing raids in Afghanistan only days before he took questions from reporters.
On that evening, Bush gave the Taliban regime a final chance to hand over members of the al-Qaida terrorist network, saying such a move could halt the bombing campaign. Aware that this was unlikely, the president wasted no time, speaking that night about how America would help rebuild Afghanistan and promote democratic values there once the Taliban was flushed from the country.
Similarly, he spoke last night of a future Iraq without Hussein as almost as a given. Bush rejected the view of skeptics who fear that Iraq could splinter into warring factions in the aftermath of a war. For the first time, he also suggested a form of government that gives a measure of autonomy to its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations.
"The Iraqi people are plenty capable of governing themselves," he said. "Iraq is a sophisticated society. Iraq's got money."
The president said Iraq could provide a model in which people can see that the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurds can get along in a "federation."
Bush told Americans he recognizes that war "creates a certain sense of anxiety." But he said that only Hussein could prevent it. "He's the person that can make the choice of war and peace," Bush said. "Thus far, he has made the wrong choice."
Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.