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Bush Tells Nation the Threat by Iraq Is ‘Simply Too Great’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When President Bush addressed the nation about Iraq on Monday night, it took only a few moments for him to play his strongest card.

Barely a few breaths into the speech, he linked the potential threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to the unprecedented losses suffered by America in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“We ... must never forget the most vivid events of recent history,” Bush declared. “We resolved then, and we are resolved today, to confront every threat, from any source, that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America.”

With that, Bush demonstrated how the attacks restructured the national security debate in America--and created almost irresistible political momentum behind his push to confront Hussein.

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Almost as if handing down an indictment, Bush on Monday night systematically laid out for the public the most detailed inventory yet of Iraq’s progress in developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, its links to terrorist organizations and Hussein’s crimes against his own population.

But these particulars were not the core of his argument. Instead, Bush repeatedly suggested that what is known about Iraq is less important than what isn’t known: whether Hussein might either seek to use weapons of mass destruction directly against American interests or provide them to terrorists.

“I’m not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein,” Bush insisted.

After Sept. 11, most members of Congress in both parties now agree with that statement, which is why a resolution authorizing the president to use force against Iraq seems certain to pass the House of Representatives and the Senate in the next few days.

That’s not because everyone agrees with the president. Notwithstanding Bush’s bill of particulars, there remains disagreement in Congress about the imminence of the threat that Iraq poses to U.S. security and the possible consequences of attacking Hussein without broad international support.

But Bush is in such a strong position on Capitol Hill because even many legislators who don’t believe that the threat is immediate accept another argument the president stressed Monday night: that after last year’s attacks, the United States can no longer afford to wait for conclusive proof of the danger from Iraq before acting.

“Some citizens wonder: After 11 years of living with this problem, why do we need to confront it now?” Bush said in a passage that crystallized his argument. “There is a reason. We have experienced the horror of Sept. 11.”

In a measured, unemotional tone, Bush sought to rebut the central arguments that critics have raised against action in Iraq. Rather than detracting from the war on terrorism, he argued, action against Iraq is a critical component of it because of the risk that Hussein might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Continued measures meant to contain Iraq, such as renewed inspections under existing U.N. rules, were inadequate, he insisted, because Hussein has evaded all of them and has continued his biological, chemical and nuclear programs.

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In one of the most striking passages, Bush, more than before, tried to steel the public for the possibility that a war with Iraq might not be as painless as the country’s low-casualty engagements in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. “An Iraqi regime faced with its own demise may attempt cruel and desperate measures,” he warned the public--before warning Iraq’s military that it could face war-crime prosecutions for attempting such actions.

Bush’s speech was an unusual use of the presidential bully pulpit. Ordinarily, presidents use national addresses to mobilize public support against a Congress blocking their initiatives. But, with Congress already mostly behind Bush’s course on Iraq, this speech seemed more inclined toward solidifying support among the public for a war that the president clearly seemed to believe was the likeliest end point for the confrontation.

Over the last few weeks, polls have found general backing for using force against Hussein, but enormous hesitance about doing so without broad international support. “There is a lot of ambivalence about doing it alone,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan group studying public opinion. “Almost all the polls show ... support for the basic concept, but the big hurdle he has to jump is ... the public doesn’t want to see us do this alone.”

The contrast between the support in Congress and across the country is striking. Over the last month, as Bush has more emphatically pressed his case for action against Iraq, resistance has dwindled in Congress; many observers expect virtually all Republicans and as many as half or more of Democrats in both chambers to support a resolution authorizing Bush to invade Iraq, with or without international sanction.

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But public opinion hasn’t grown warmer to the idea of war--and by some measures has cooled. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released just before the speech Monday found support for sending ground troops to remove Hussein slipping slightly to 53%, from 57% in September, CNN reported.

Other polls that have phrased the question slightly differently have found higher and more consistent levels of support for war. In a CBS/New York Times poll conducted late last week, for instance, two-thirds of respondents--the same as in September--said they would support “taking military action ... to try to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”

That’s a much higher level of public support for military intervention than polls generally found before the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the United States intervened to remove Iraq from Kuwait.

But, as Kohut notes, the surveys have found steady, and by some accounts growing, concern about going to war without broad international support. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey last month, three-fifths of Americans said they would oppose invading Iraq if the U.S. had to act alone, or if the United Nations opposed the move.

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In the new CBS/New York Times poll, 63% of Americans said the U.S. should give U.N. weapons inspections more time to work before invading Iraq; that was up from 57% in September. Nearly two-thirds also said the U.S. should wait for more support from its allies before acting.

Bush seemed acutely aware of those sentiments in his speech Monday night. As he did in his address to the U.N., he declared his intention to work through the world body if possible. And he tried to reassure Americans that “if we have to act ... we will act with allies at our side.”

But the driving force of Bush’s argument was that after Sept. 11, the dangers of not acting now look greater than the risks of acting. Waiting before confronting Hussein, Bush said in a concluding passage, is “the riskiest option of all” because it would leave open the chance that Iraq could develop nuclear weapons or provide biological and chemical weapons to terrorists.

“We refuse to live in fear,” Bush declared in what might be the most concise summary of why U.S. troops may soon be heading toward a second Persian Gulf War.

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