Byline: Joseph Curl, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
A political drumbeat is building from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill in support of a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq, but Bush administration officials are split on how to proceed and on whether Congress must first approve an attack.
While Bush officials have assured key lawmakers no U.S. attack on Iraq will occur before the November elections, the issue has moved center stage as the administration seeks to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, al Qaeda.
"Things have definitely ramped up recently, both at the Pentagon and Congress," one Bush official said. "But that doesn't mean we're any closer to action."
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld last week said he believes there is a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, but added the United States cannot be sure because troops are not on the ground in Iraq.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, also said last week he suspects members of bin Laden's group are in Iraq.
Establishing that connection matters because some are arguing that the president can act without Congress' backing for a military campaign because lawmakers have already authorized Mr. Bush to pursue al Qaeda.
"The jury is still out on that issue," the Bush official said.
But Bush administration lawyers reportedly have concluded linking Iraq to the group responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks would provide the legal justification the administration needs to launch a strike without congressional approval.
A Senate resolution passed Sept. 14 authorizes the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided" in the attack.
An al Qaeda link also could allow the administration to bypass the United Nations.
A U.N. Security Council resolution passed Sept. 28 affirms "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense" by nations faced with the threat of terror attack and the need "to combat by all means" threats to international peace and security posed by terrorists.
Mr. Bush also remains committed to seeking the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
"The policy of this administration is regime change," he said Friday after a White House meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah. He reiterated his stance yesterday while vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine.
"Nothing's changed," Mr. Bush told reporters. "I'm a patient man. I'll use all of the tools at our disposal" to deal with Saddam.
Speaking earlier yesterday at a political fund-raiser, Mr. Bush said: "We owe it to the future of civilization not to allow the world's worst leaders to develop and deploy and therefore blackmail the freedom-loving nations with the world's worst weapons."
The New York Times earlier this month reported the Bush administration planned to launch air strikes and commando raids from Jordan against neighboring Iraq once Mr. Bush gave the order.
Jordan immediately denied it, even escorting journalists on a tour of a desert air base to show it was not being upgraded to serve U.S. forces.
The continuing threat posed by Saddam has taken new prominence with congressional hearings this week. On Wednesday, two former top U.N. weapons specialists told a Senate panel the threat from Iraq's …