Bush: Attack by Iraq could kill economy


President Bush points to a local restaurant where he had lunch Tuesday in Crawford Texas. Drawing distinctions between two international threats, Bush said Tuesday he is confident North Korea's nuclear buildup can be stopped diplomatically, but warned that Saddam Hussein ``has not heard the message'' and may be headed toward conflict with the United States.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 1:08 a.m.

CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush said Tuesday that an attack by Saddam Hussein or a terrorist ally "would cripple our economy," offering new justification for potential war against Iraq even as he said North Korea's nuclear ambitions can be curbed without military conflict.

The president emerged from several days of holiday seclusion to defend his policy of treating Saddam as an imminent threat and North Korea's Kim Jong Il as a longer-term problem. The uneven policies are drawing increased criticism.

In a lengthy and at times defensive exchange with reporters, the president said his New Year's resolution was to "deal with these situations . . . peacefully." But he strained to draw distinctions between the threats posed by Iraq and North Korea.

While North Korea only recently broke its 1994 pledge to abandon its nuclear weapons program, Bush said Saddam "has defied the international community" for 11 years.

Secondly, the president said Iraq was believed to be "close to having a nuclear weapon" in the 1990s, though he acknowledged the United States does not know whether Saddam currently possesses such technology.

While making a fresh case against Saddam, the president did not mention that North Korea is believed to have one or two nuclear bombs. Nor did he note that North Korean leaders could produce several more nuclear bombs in a matter of months if they carry out their threat to restart the Pyongyang nuclear program.

"This is not a military showdown. This is a diplomatic showdown," Bush said of the North Korean situation.

However, South Korea's president-elect on Tuesday criticized the White House plan to use economic sanctions to force North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons development, asserting his country's role in resolving the looming nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Roh Moo-hyun warned against "blindly following U.S. policy," echoing the kind of anti-American rhetoric that helped him win election Dec. 19.

Bush's critics contend that North Korea is a greater threat than Iraq. Warren Christopher, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, urged Bush in a New York Times op-ed article to "step back from his fixation on attacking Iraq" to reassess U.S. priorities.

Iraq does not to have the capability to strike at the U.S. homeland with military forces or missiles, although some U.S. officials fear Saddam could conduct terrorist-style attacks on America or turn over his weapons to terrorist groups.

There is scant evidence he has plans to do either, U.S. officials have said.

"I had made the case, and will continue to make the case, that Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is a threat to the security of the American people," Bush said.

He suggested the risks of attack from Saddam outweigh the potential costs of war.

When asked whether the high cost of war would cripple the U.S. economy, Bush tersely replied: "An attack from Saddam Hussein or a surrogate of Saddam Hussein would cripple our economy."

"This economy cannot afford to stand an attack," he said, even as his budget team was predicting war with Iraq would cost at least $50 billion.

It marked the first time Bush has used potential damage to the U.S. economy as justification for military action.

As he laid out the new argument, backed by tens of thousands of U.S. troops massing near Iraq, Bush suggested military action is not being contemplated against nuclear-armed North Korea.

"All options, of course, are always on the table for any president, but by working with (U.S. allies) we can resolve this," he said.

Bush has pledged to disarm Saddam, with force if necessary, unless Iraq does so voluntarily.

"Thus far, it appears that, at first look, that Saddam Hussein hasn't heard the message," Bush said.

U.N. weapons inspectors have not reported finding any weapons of mass destruction after several weeks of work, but U.S. officials say Saddam is hiding the illicit material. They are pushing the U.N. to bolster its inspection methods.

Some U.S. allies say they fear Bush is too eager for war. Sensitive to the criticism, Bush bristled at the suggestion that war was inevitable.

"You said we're headed to war in Iraq. I don't know why you say that," Bush told reporters. "I'm the person who gets to decide, not you. And I hope this can be done peacefully."

He made the remarks outside "Coffee Station," a diner near Bush's ranch where the president and his wife, Laura, stopped for a New Year's Eve cheeseburger.

He said the nation is "a lot safer today than it was a year ago, and it's going to be safer after this year than it was this year because the United States of America will continue to lead a vast coalition of freedom-loving countries to disrupt terrorist activities, to hold dictators accountable, particularly those who ignore international norm and international rule. "

Bush said he personally authorized the FBI to put out an all-points bulletin for five men suspected of being smuggled into the country. U.S. intelligence said the men came through Canada, but it is unclear whether they have any plans to carry out terrorist acts.

On a separate note, Bush said the Republican Party has not been damaged by Sen. Trent Lott's comments suggesting sympathy with segregation because, he said, Americans know that the GOP cares about equality "regardless of color of skin."

Lott, R-Miss., stepped down as Senate majority leader after harsh criticism from Bush and pressure from his Senate GOP colleagues.

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