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Bush Appears to Soften Tone on Iraq Action

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Bush Appears to Soften Tone on Iraq Action

By DAVID E. SANGER and CARL HULSE

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 — President Bush seemed to soften his tone today about military action against Iraq, saying he was open to compromises with Congress and the United Nations as long as both passed "tough" resolutions that did not tie his hands if Saddam Hussein refuses to disarm. But his spokesman said later that Mr. Bush was still determined to oust Mr. Hussein, and urged the Iraqi people to rise up against Mr. Hussein and exile or kill him.

Mr. Bush said twice today that his goal was "disarming this man," and, in remarks that may have been intended to placate the Security Council members and allies who would have to approve a new United Nations resolution, he made no reference to engineering Mr. Hussein's overthrow.

Two hours later, his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, whose words do not carry as much weight with foreign leaders as the president's, said the goal of removing Mr. Hussein had not changed.

"The policy is regime change, and that remains the American position," he said, even if it was not the policy of the United Nations. He also used the White House podium to encourage a coup, suggesting that there were less expensive ways to accomplish the removal of Mr. Hussein than a military invasion.

"The cost of a one-way ticket is substantially less than that," he said. "The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that."

Mr. Fleischer added, "There are many options that the president hopes the world and people of Iraq will exercise" that would get "rid of the threat."

As the White House tried to navigate the politics of the United Nations, it accelerated efforts to strike a compromise in Congress that would pave the way for quick passage of a resolution authorizing some kind of military action — though under more limited terms than the president would like. Congressional leaders said a White House meeting on Wednesday morning could define the measure's final language.

On Capitol Hill, aides to Congressional leaders said they were getting close to an agreement on language for a resolution authorizing the president to take military action against Iraq, but there, too, deliberations over striking the right tone were still taking place.

Until now, Pentagon officials have insisted that any strategy to promote an internal uprising against Mr. Hussein would likely fail. But on Monday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said there were several alternatives to killing Mr. Hussein. "If he's on the run, he's not governing Iraq," Mr. Rumsfeld said, and Mr. Fleischer said he was simply echoing that view today.

The White House said Mr. Bush was not considering lifting the ban on American agents' assassinating foreign leaders. But that ban, several administration officials have noted, does not apply to Iraqi dissidents. Some of them are receiving aid and training from the Central Intelligence Agency, though it is not clear whether that training includes guidance in taking aim at Mr. Hussein.

The other evidence that the Bush team is looking for an possible alternative to a full military invasion came as diplomats leaked details of the resolution that the United States and Britain are circulating in the Security Council. It calls for military backup of any inspections, and authorization for the United States or its allies to destroy any arms caches or weapons laboratories that the United Nations inspectors find.

"There seems to be a real indication that they are moving toward a new form of a coercive inspections regime," said Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a co-author of a recent proposal to back up inspectors with air and land forces. That proposal called for a small multinational force with the objective of removing Mr. Hussein's weapons of mass destruction but not Mr. Hussein himself, though the force would be composed so "that it can quickly become an invasion force if necessary."

Until recently, White House officials dismissed the proposal as unworkable. But now they seem to have embraced the idea, at least in part.

At the White House, Mr. Bush said, "What I won't accept is something that allows Saddam Hussein to continue to lie, deceive the world." But he also noted that "all of us recognize the military option is not the first choice," adding later that his main goal was to "put calcium in the backbone" of the United Nations as it enforces its mandates on Iraq.

Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana and an influential senator on foreign policy, said he met with three of Mr. Bush's top advisers this morning to discuss a draft that he and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have offered as an alternative to the resolution that the White House has been seeking. Their plan narrows the goal of American military action in Iraq to the enforcement of disarmament, and puts more of an emphasis on assuring — but not requiring — that any use of force have multinational support.

Mr. Fleischer said that Mr. Bush objected to that proposal, saying it "ties his hands because it pulls back from many of the provisions that Congress itself cited in 1998," when it passed a resolution calling for a change of government in Iraq.

The new language, he noted, does not call on Iraq's leaders, and Mr. Hussein in particular, "to cease their support for terror, to stop repression of his own people, to cease threatening his neighbors." Mr. Lugar said his plan deliberately separated those and other issues that many lawmakers believe are not cause for war.

The White House seemed open to negotiation, however, and within hours of Mr. Bush's comments, administration officials were trying to hammer out compromise language.

"I think that there was a recognition that the diplomacy of attempting to gain allies to respond and try to utilize the United Nations is important," Mr. Lugar said after his White House meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales.

Mr. Lugar said that in his discussions with the White House officials, he also suggested removing some of the resolution language that sharply criticized Iraq for its handling of prisoners from the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and Mr. Hussein's brutality against his own people.

"In conversations they admit these are not a cause of war," he said. Mr. Lugar also said that while the president suggested that the proposed resolution would limit presidential powers granted in 1991 and 1998, he and Mr. Biden did not believe that was the case.

Mr. Biden said he believed that the version he and Mr. Lugar are proposing could result in a strong Senate vote in favor of the resolution.

"It's important that this pass on an overwhelming vote," he said. "At the moment it might be 60-40 or maybe 70-30 in the Senate, but I think with the language in our proposal, we could get overwhelming support."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee plan meetings on Wednesday to begin consideration of a resolution.

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