WASHINGTON - Pursuing a two-front campaign, the Bush administration pressed yesterday for quick action from Congress and the United Nations to authorize military strikes against Iraq and questioned whether Saddam Hussein would ever allow aggressive weapons inspections that would guarantee his nation had disarmed.
President Bush has made no decision on whether to use military might against Iraq, his advisers say. Still, administration officials argued their case that forcibly removing Hussein from power might be the only way to ensure that Iraq destroys its weapons of mass destruction.
At the White House, the president called on world leaders and lawmakers to be suspicious of the Iraqi leader's offer to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors after a four-year absence.
"He deceives, he delays, he denies," Bush said. "And the United States - and, I'm convinced, the world community - aren't going to fall for that kind of rhetoric by him again."
Democratic leaders promised Bush at a breakfast meeting that they would schedule a vote before the November elections on a congressional resolution authorizing the president to take still-unspecified action against Iraq. Testifying on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called for that vote before the United Nations acts on the issue.
"Only certainty of U.S. and U.N. purposefulness can have even the prospect of affecting the Iraqi regime," Rumsfeld said. "It is important that Congress send that message as soon as possible - before the U.N. Security Council votes."
Rumsfeld, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, also questioned what inspectors returning to Iraq could accomplish.
He said he doubts that Iraq will agree to "sufficiently intrusive" inspections. Also, he argued that Hussein has used the four years since inspectors were last in Iraq to continue work on weapons of mass destruction, including "aggressively" pursuing a nuclear capability.
During that time, Rumsfeld said, Hussein has also fashioned an array of hiding places for his weapons program, including underground bunkers and mobile biological labs that are difficult to keep track of.
The president, who is expected to send a draft congressional resolution to Capitol Hill as early as today, wants an open-ended authorization, including approval from lawmakers to use military force if necessary.
Yesterday, Democrats committed themselves to no specific wording in a resolution. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said any U.S. action should carry international support, but he vowed that lawmakers would work for "one resolution with strong bipartisan support."
Congressional leaders are working to avoid the contentious circumstances that surrounded the vote on the use of force in Iraq in 1991, when Republicans and Democrats offered competing resolutions and ultimately sanctioned military action by close margins.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said he expects his panel to be ready to send a resolution to the floor as soon as Sept. 26. He said he has drafted a resolution that says, "Mr. President, do what you've got to do."
In New York, U.S. and British officials began working on language for a U.N. Security Council resolution that would allow nations to use military force if Hussein's government refuses to comply with existing U.N. resolutions, which, among other demands, require that Iraq destroy any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Some nations, including veto-wielding Russia and France, have questioned the need for a new resolution in the wake of Iraq's offer Monday to readmit inspectors, suggesting that the United Nations test Hussein's pledge.
Sounding less dismissive of inspections than Rumsfeld, Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, called them "one of the tools to use" to find out whether Iraq is complying with resolutions. He added, however, that "any inspections need to be done in an unfettered manner. [The inspectors] need to be different than before. They need to be able to go anywhere, any time, anyplace, talk to anyone they need."
U.S. and British diplomats, amid signs of deep divisions at the United Nations, stepped up their effort to craft a resolution and hope to circulate it among the other 13 Security Council members by early next week.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that Hussein's offer to welcome inspectors back was a bow to pressure. "We have got to keep up the pressure. ... This is not because Saddam wants to let the inspectors back in. It is the pressure that has brought him to this position," Blair said.
Bush will meet at the White House tomorrow with the Russian defense and foreign ministers. Tuesday, the foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, clashed at a news conference with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, saying the primary task of the United Nations was to ensure that the inspectors returned, not to pursue a new resolution.
Arab governments generally support the Russian position. "We don't see any need for a resolution after the measures taken by the Iraqi government," Faysal Mekdad, Syria's deputy U.N. ambassador, said yesterday.
Last week, in a major speech to the United Nations, Bush challenged the world body to prove that it is not "irrelevant" by forcing Hussein to comply with a host of resolutions he has ignored or face the consequences.
The resolutions include demands that Hussein discard offensive weapons and that he cut Iraq's ties to terrorist groups, identify military personnel who were killed or listed as missing during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and halt any illegal use of oil profits to purchase weapons.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer denied that Hussein's offer to welcome U.N. inspectors had slowed Bush's efforts to win approval for a new U.N. resolution. But he added, "In diplomacy, there is no such thing as a slam dunk."
As the U.S. tried to focus the Security Council on a new resolution, other members were pushing to get inspectors back into Iraq. A majority of the 15-member council scheduled a meeting for today with chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. He is also expected to meet with Iraqi officials Sept. 30.
Bush had said there would be no negotiations with Hussein's government over the terms of inspections. Fleischer said the meeting between Blix and the Iraqis would not be "negotiations," but rather "technical conversations" relating to the return of inspectors.
In Congress, skepticism remains among members who complain that the administration has not offered persuasive evidence that Hussein is more dangerous than he was before.
"We must think carefully before we authorize the use of military force," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said as Rumsfeld testified.
Another panel member, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat, told Rumsfeld he could see benefits in another round of inspections with assurances that they would be "robust and unfettered."
"The goal is not inspections; the goal is disarmament," the defense secretary responded.
Rumsfeld said a war against Iraq would require calling up more National Guard and Reserve forces. Since Sept. 11 last year, more than 70,000 reservists have been called to active duty.
Sun staff writers Mark Matthews and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
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