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Bush begins international push on Iraq

President calls world leaders

President Bush talks on the phone Friday with the presidents of China, France and Russia.
President Bush talks on the phone Friday with the presidents of China, France and Russia.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush sought support for U.S. action against Iraq from skeptical members of the U.N. Security Council Friday as he prepared for a weekend meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Bush spoke Friday morning with the leaders of three of the five permanent Security Council members -- French President Jacques Chirac, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. All three have expressed doubts about the need for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and any one of them could veto Security Council resolutions on Iraq.

"He told these leaders that he valued their opinion," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Friday. "The president stressed that Saddam Hussein is a threat and that the United States was going to work together with the world to make the world more peaceful, and we welcome their role and their involvement."

Bush will continue pressing his case for Hussein's ouster in a Saturday meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bush advisers will make the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, and the White House has dispatched envoys to Moscow, Beijing and Paris for follow-up discussions after Bush's speech to the U.N. General Assembly next week, Fleischer said.

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Britain is the only permanent member of the Security Council to publicly support Bush's position on Iraq. In an interview scheduled for broadcast Sunday, Blair told the BBC that Britain should be prepared to commit troops alongside U.S. forces.

"They need to know you're prepared to commit, you're prepared to be there and when the shooting starts, you're prepared to be there," he said.

Blair has faced criticism at home for that position, but he told the BBC he would not be backing the United States "if I thought they were doing something wrong."

"If I thought they were committing military action in a way that was wrong, I would never support that," he said. "But I've never found that, and I don't expect to find it in the future."

Bush's calls Friday were meant to "begin this process of collaboration -- to do exactly what the world would expect and exactly what the world deserves -- which is a free exchange of information, a discussion about the consequences and the risks," Fleischer said.

He would not characterize the leaders' responses except to say they all expressed their appreciation to Bush for consulting them. But in Moscow, Russian officials said Putin told Bush he has "serious doubts" about the legal or political basis for military action against Iraq.

Putin believes a real possibility remains of solving the Iraq standoff politically, the officials said.

Moscow is urging Iraq to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country to assure the international community that Iraq has not resumed producing weapons of mass destruction, and the comments were in line with previous Russian statements on Iraq.

'Mountain of evidence'

Asked if the White House had new evidence of Iraqi weapons development, Fleischer said plenty of evidence exists already.

"Adding additional information is like adding a foot to Mount Everest," he said. "There already is a mountain of evidence that shows that Saddam Hussein, since the Gulf War and prior to the Gulf War, has sought to develop weapons for the purpose of using them. Now, as we saw on September 11th, when our enemies have weapons, they do not hesitate to use them against the American people."

The White House also is seeking a congressional endorsement of any military action, preferably before Congress adjourns in October for midterm elections. In a CNN interview Friday, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said Bush needs to build international support before making any military move against Iraq.

"Part of doing this the right way and the successful way is to put together a coalition," said Gephardt, D-Missouri. "Sometimes that takes diplomatic efforts as well as military efforts to get that done."

Both Gephardt and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, were in New York for a special joint meeting of Congress marking the coming anniversary of last year's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Hastert said the United States needs to make sure such attacks do "not happen again in this country."

"We know the history of Hussein, and we know he is a bad actor," Hastert said. "We know he's had weapons of mass destruction and used them against Iranians and used them against the Kurds in his own country, and he would use them against anybody else, too."

Hastert and Gephardt got a closed-door briefing on the issue Thursday from Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director George Tenet. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D -South Dakota, and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, also participated.

Daschle said Friday the briefing "wasn't conclusive, but it was helpful."

"This is an ongoing process," Daschle told CNN. "As we have said several times now, the president needs to make case not only to us but to the American people and to the international community, and that effort has now begun."

Daschle said the process was particularly important because "pre-emptive strikes are not something we do."

"To take this action requires very careful deliberation, and that's what we're going to give it," he said.

-- CNN correspondents Kelly Wallace, Jill Dougherty and Kate Snow contributed to this report.




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