Bush refuses to rule out attack on Iraq

US President George Bush has said he would consider a wide range of options to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, ordering a review that could result in a showdown.

US President George Bush has said he would consider a wide range of options to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, ordering a review that could result in a showdown.

Saddam ‘‘needs to understand I am serious’’, Bush said.

Bush did not rule out a military strike to overthrow Saddam, who has pursued weapons of mass destruction and refused to admit United Nations weapons inspectors.

Secretary of State Colin Powell specifically included military action as an option, although he said Bush had not made a decision. Other administration officials said in interviews the process of formulating a policy was in an early stage.

Bush ‘‘is committed to regime change’’ and is considering the use of anti-Saddam opposition forces, ‘‘military activity and other kinds of activity,’’ Powell said.

‘‘These options are under consideration,’’ Powell told a House of Representatives sub-committee reviewing the administration’s budget for the financial year that begins on October 1.

A senior US official told the Associated Press news agency that Bush’s top advisers and relevant agencies had been directed to develop and refine a full range of options.

The administration had not begun to make its case to other countries, the official said. That chore probably will fall to Vice President Dick Cheney in mid-March when he visits European, Persian Gulf and Middle East capitals to talk to leaders there about countering terrorism.

After meeting Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf yesterday, Bush declined to disclose details of options.

‘‘I will keep them close to my vest,’’ Bush said. ‘‘President Saddam Hussein needs to understand I am serious about defending our country.’’

Accelerating the US decision-making process is that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction might be used in terrorist attacks on the United States, officials said.

Touching on this point, Bush said any alliance between terrorist organisations and terror-supporting nations with a history of pursuing nuclear or other destructive weapons would be ‘‘devastating for those of us who fight for freedom,’’ and the United States would not tolerate it.

‘‘We, the free world, must make it clear to these nations they have a choice to make,’’ Bush said. ‘‘I will keep all options available if they don’t make the choice.’’

CIA Director George Tenet is said to favour a plan that relies heavily on covert action. In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency already is authorised to try to destabilise the Baghdad government.

Powell yesterday held out hope that the UN Security Council in May would adopt ‘‘smart sanctions’’ that would permit Iraq to import a wide range of goods that could ease the plight of the Iraqi people.

Powell has suggested Russia might support the United States.

Arab governments long have lobbied for easing the burden on the Iraqi people. But a decision by the Security Council on new sanctions are unlikely to prompt Saddam to readmit UN inspectors.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, accused the United States of ‘‘flagrant interference in Iraq’s internal affairs’’.

He said Bush’s designation of Iraq as part of an ‘‘axis of evil’’ and Powell’s call for ‘‘regime change’’ reflected ‘‘the criminality and terrorism of the US administration’’.

Powell has taken the lead in making the public case for ousting Saddam, telling Congress last week that the United States might have to act unilaterally to bring about a ‘‘regime change’’ in Baghdad.

Yesterday Powell said the administration preferred acting together with other countries, but above all was determined to do the right thing, even if it meant acting alone.

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