In a media blitz to rally support for toughened action against Iraq, the Bush administration charged Sunday that Baghdad’s intensifying efforts to develop a nuclear weapon increase the urgency of ousting the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
Iraq is “actively and aggressively” working on a nuclear bomb, with the growing potential for the United States to become a victim of Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction, said Vice President Dick Cheney, one of five top officials who appeared on Sunday television talk shows to press the U.S. case for strong action on Iraq.
Based on the looming dangers, the United States does not need additional U.N. resolutions, international participation or other justification to act against Baghdad, administration officials emphasized.
“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “How long are we going to wait to deal with what is clearly a gathering threat against the United States, against our allies and against his own region?”
The administration can invoke President Bush’s new policy of preemptive action to eliminate the threat, the officials noted.
“If we have reason to believe someone is preparing an attack against the U.S., has developed that capability, harbors those aspirations, then I think the U.S. is justified in dealing with it, if necessary, by military force,” Cheney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Despite the regime’s buildup of weapons of mass destruction, the vice president said, a war against Iraq would not be “that tough a fight.” He conceded, however, that it would be costly and could involve a prolonged U.S. presence in the country.
The increased danger from Hussein’s nuclear ambitions has become clear over the last 12 to 14 months from new intelligence and the interception of equipment needed to develop a nuclear bomb, including specialized aluminum tubes to enrich uranium, Cheney said.
“We know about a particular shipment. We’ve intercepted that. We don’t know what else--what other avenues he may be taking out there,” he added.
“But we do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.... And increasingly, we believe that the United States may well become the target of those activities.”
In recent years, Hussein is widely believed to have used illicit funds derived from smuggling oil to procure goods to advance his weapons programs, in violation of several U.N. resolutions and the cease-fire terms of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The United States is still uncertain when Iraq might have a bomb, but Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he does not believe that Baghdad has a nuclear capability yet.
Cheney warned that the dangers have reached a point at which a delay of as little as six months would mean higher costs down the road.
“The cost of military action, if that’s what it comes to, would be significantly less [now] than having to deal with it after we’ve been struck once again by a deadly system,” the vice president added.
As the administration prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld invoked the horrific magnitude and casualties of the terrorist actions against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in describing Iraq’s weapons program.
“Imagine a Sept. 11 with weapons of mass destruction. It’s not 3,000--it’s tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Administration officials also warned Sunday that Baghdad has stepped up the development of nonnuclear weapons, particularly its ability to produce and deliver biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox.
Cheney said Hussein could attempt to use these diseases against other nations, “possibly including the United States.”
Iraq also has been “working hard” to develop delivery systems, among them aerial devices and drones, to disperse biological weapons, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on “Fox News Sunday.”
In light of the dangers, Cheney said, stronger action is warranted because U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq--the toughest ever imposed on a nation--have broken down after 11 years and because growing trade with Baghdad by other nations is allowing Hussein to both defy the outside world and strengthen his position at home.
A day after Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to plot a joint U.S.-British strategy to win international backing for what the administration calls “regime change,” officials said Sunday that they believe other allies will eventually agree with the U.S. call for Hussein’s ouster.
Other nations either oppose or question the U.S. drive to end Hussein’s 23-year rule because “many of them do not have access to the [intelligence] information we have,” Cheney said.
Bush is expected to lay out at least some aspects of the administration’s rationale for ousting Hussein during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.
But Russia weighed in Sunday with a warning that any effort to use the war on terrorism to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state would cause “irreversible damage” to the global coalition amassed by the United States to confront Islamic extremists.
Powell left open the possibility that the U.S. could go it alone.
“The president will retain all of his authority and options to act in a way that may be appropriate for us to act unilaterally to defend ourselves,” he said.
The administration’s domestic campaign to win support came on the same day that former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter told Iraq’s National Assembly that the United States is on the verge of making a “historic mistake” by launching a war against Iraq.
Ritter, a former Marine who resigned from the inspections team in 1998, also told the parliament that Iraq is no longer a threat to its neighbors or the outside world because it has eliminated up to 95% of its deadliest arms.
“The rhetoric of fear that is disseminated by my government and others has not to date been backed up by hard facts that substantiate any allegations that Iraq is today in possession of weapons of mass destruction or has links to terror groups responsible for attacking the United States. Void of such facts, all we have is speculation,” he said.
U.S. officials dismissed his allegations. The United States has facts, not speculation, Powell said.
“If Scott is right, then why are they keeping the inspectors out?” the secretary asked.
Other weapons inspectors disputed Ritter’s claim that Iraq has almost complied with the U.N. demands, pointing out that the United Nations never had a list outlining 100% of Baghdad’s arsenal--and therefore could not know what percentage has been found and destroyed.
But Ritter did call on Hussein’s government to allow the inspectors to return and have unfettered access to all Iraqi installations.
“Iraq has legitimate grievances regarding the past work of the weapons inspectors and for that reason has sought to keep inspectors from returning to Iraq. But I also know that there will be no peaceful solution of this current crisis unless Iraq allows their return,” he said. Ritter in the past has written about the presence of U.S. and British intelligence operatives among the weapons inspectors.
Ritter spoke to the 250-member National Assembly, which is tightly controlled by the ruling Baath Party, on the same day the parliament formally ratified a motion nominating Hussein to lead Iraq for seven more years. Iraqis will go to the polls to vote on the uncontested nomination Oct. 15.