Hill leaders, Bush to talk Iraq
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional leaders, members of the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee headed to the White House on Wednesday to talk with President Bush about his administration's policy on Iraq.
In addition, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will meet Wednesday with senators on Capitol Hill -- at his request -- to discuss Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, told reporters.
A senior administration official described the meetings as the beginning of a concerted White House effort to counter critics who say either that the president is in a rush toward a military confrontation or that the administration is sending confusing or conflicting signals about its policies and intentions.
"We believe a lot of this is media-driven and exaggerated," the official said. "But that said, there is some confusion and a legitimate debate and over the next couple of weeks we think there is an opportunity to clarify some things."
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Bush is consulting "widely" with his Cabinet and allies and could explain his position at a September 12 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
"I think you will see that the president will pull all these threads together," Powell said.
The administration official said senior members of the Bush national security team would be speaking out in the days leading up to Bush's U.N. speech.
Powell acknowledged that the debate among administration officials is ongoing.
"I see there are lots of differences. Some are real, some are perceived, some are over-hyped," Powell said.
"There are lots of views in the administration, outside the administration, up on [Capitol] Hill, throughout the talk shows, the media and throughout the international community. The president is considering it all," he said.
His comments followed an interview he made Sunday with the BBC in which he appeared to contradict comments Vice President Dick Cheney made in two tough speeches last week. (Full story)
Rumsfeld dismisses Iraq overture
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said Tuesday that Iraq is "ready to cooperate with the United Nations and we are ready to explain our position."
Following a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Earth Summit, Aziz said his government was ready to consider the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.
But he attached several conditions, including an end to international sanctions, an end to the "no-fly zones" over northern and southern Iraq, and an end to the talk of war coming from Washington. (Full story)
Rumsfeld said Tuesday he has seen such statements before.
"It's a dance they engage in," he said. "They have, over a good many years, demonstrated a wonderful talent and skill at manipulating the media and international organizations in other countries."
He said history has shown Iraq will withdraw such offers at the "last moment" and then go "back into their other mode of thumbing their nose at the international community." (Full story)
Many senators skeptical
Upon returning from their August break, many members of the Senate said they were skeptical about going to war with Iraq at this time.
Asked if the Bush administration has been speaking with a coherent voice on Iraq, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott smiled and said, "I'd like a couple more days before I respond to that."
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, was less diplomatic, telling reporters he believes the "administration's position is very confusing."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who just returned from meetings in Europe with International Atomic Energy Association officials and other European allies, said it would be a terrible mistake to attack Iraq. She called for intensified diplomatic efforts.
"I think a unilateral attack on Iraq, with the circumstances I am aware at the present time, is a mistake," she said. "I think it is a mistake morally. I think it is a mistake politically. I think it will set into motion a series of events that most of us can not comprehend."
Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, the Senate GOP policy chairman, also warned that attacking Iraq unilaterally would be "very risky" and the American public is "very nervous" over the prospect.
"If I had to vote now for immediate action against Iraq, I'd vote no," Craig said. "We're not an aggressive, offensive nation," Craig told CNN.
But Lott said Tuesday the question of U.S. military action against Iraq is about when -- not whether -- it will take place. New U.N. weapons inspections, he said, would probably be a "waste of time," echoing the comments made last week by Cheney.
Although he does not think there is a constitutional requirement for Bush to come to Congress before military action, Lott said he is confident the president would do so.
"I am absolutely satisfied that if we are going to have a major conflict again in Iraq, that Congress will be involved, that there will be time for a debate," Lott said.
"I don't know that this is going to happen, but I expect that something specific would be asked of Congress before an overt action would occur, barring an emergency."
A Democratic source said Bush "would almost without question" be able to win passage of a congressional resolution backing military confrontation with Iraq.
"The question for them is, do they want a big vote or a not-so-big vote?" the source said. "If they want a big vote, it requires a lot of work and a lot of talking to a lot of people. If this meeting is the beginning of that, then good for them."
Both administration and congressional sources said an issue that needed to be resolved is whether the administration would share intelligence information with congressional committees exploring Iraq policy.
'A welcome beginning'
A senior Democratic congressional source said Wednesday's White House meeting was "a welcome beginning," but said it was still unclear how much information the president was prepared to share.
An administration official pointed to a portion of Cheney's recent speeches in which he said Bush had instructed his national security team "to participate fully" in congressional hearings.
"Fully to me seems to mean share what we know, but there can be problems with that," the official said.
But this official and two senior congressional aides said they did not know whether that subject would be addressed in the Wednesday meeting at the White House.
The Democratic source said that to date the White House has ignored opportunities to enlist Democratic help in making the case for regime change in Iraq.
This source noted a speech several months ago in which House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said he agreed with Bush on the need for regime change.
"There was a golden moment to reach out, say thank you, and offer to work together to enlist support,'' this Democratic source said. "But they never reached out and have never talked to us about this."
--- CNN White House correspondents John King and Suzanne Malveaux, Capitol Hill producer Dana Bash and State Department producer Elise Labotte contributed to this report.
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