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W.H. rejects Bush-Saddam duel offer

From Kelly Wallace (CNN Washington Bureau)

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan in a file photo

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House scorned an Iraqi leader's suggestion that President Bush and Saddam Hussein could resolve their differences in a duel, calling it an "irresponsible statement" that did not justify a "serious response."

"I just want to point out that in the past when Iraq had disputes, it invaded its neighbors," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.

"There were no duels; there were no invasions. There was use of weapons of mass destruction and [the] military. And that's how Iraq settles its disputes."

Fleischer was responding to comments made Thursday by Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan in an interview with Abu Dhabi television that was also broadcast by CNN.

The Iraqi leader argued that instead of going to war with Iraq, Bush should participate in a personal duel with Saddam.

"Bush wants to attack the whole Iraq, the army and the infrastructure," Ramadan said. "If such a call is genuine, then let the American president and a selected group with him face a selected group of us and we choose a neutral land and let [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan be a supervisor and both groups should use the same weapon."

"A president against a president and vice president against a vice president, and a duel takes place, if they are serious," the Iraqi vice president said. "And in this way we are saving the American and Iraqi people."

In other developments, the White House voiced confidence that the United Nations would ultimately approve a tough new resolution, even as Russia rejected the U.S.-British draft, which calls for a timetable for Iraq to comply with U.N. disarmament demands and military action if it does not comply.

"I think what you're seeing is diplomacy unfold, and in the end, the president remains optimistic the outcome will be solid," Fleischer said.

The press secretary disputed any notion that Bush is getting frustrated with the pace of negotiations; three weeks after his U.N. speech, there is no sign an agreement is imminent.

"I think the president understands how the U.N. works," Fleischer said. "And when the president went up there, he said that this would be a matter of days and weeks, not months. And it is not a matter of months."

Fleischer repeated that the United States believes inspectors should not return to Iraq without a new inspections regime in place.

"If they go in under the current regime, it is a fool's errand to call them inspectors. They will be nothing more than tourists who get a run-around," Fleischer said.

"There is widespread recognition in the Security Council that the existing regime failed to do the job," he said. "It failed to disarm Saddam Hussein and it has left a threat in place."

Hans Blix, chief of the U.N. weapons inspection team, briefed the U.N. Security Council Thursday on his meetings with Iraqi officials. Blix will be in Washington Friday to update U.S. officials.

Fleischer said Bush remained convinced that any U.N. resolution has to lay out how Saddam has defied U.N. resolutions, what it would take for him to comply and the consequences if he does not comply.

"Those are the three pillars that the president has outlined and that is what the president expects, and that's what the president will fight for, and that's what the president expects," Fleischer said, refusing to say whether those requirements are non-negotiable.

The Senate Thursday debated the question of whether to use U.S. forces to disarm Iraq, the chamber's senior Democrat warning that a pre-emptive strike would turn the United States into a "rogue nation." (Full story)

With White House officials confident the president will have strong bipartisan support in the Congress for a war resolution with Iraq, Bush has turned his focus on pressing the United Nations to act and stressing that if it doesn't, the United States would not have to act alone.

"The choice is up to the United Nations to show its resolve," Bush said in a speech to Hispanic leaders. "The choice is up to Saddam Hussein to fulfill his word. And if neither of them acts, the United States, in deliberate fashion, will lead a coalition to take away the world's worst weapons from one of the world's worst leaders.

"My intent is to put together a vast coalition of countries who understand the threat of Saddam Hussein," Bush said.

Fleischer would not say how many countries have agreed to be part of any military coalition or what help various countries have agreed to provide.

At least two countries, Romania and Bulgaria, have announced they would allow U.S. forces to use their air bases and resources in a war against Saddam Hussein.

"I think the days of anybody saying the United States would do anything unilateral are over," Fleischer said. "I think it's very clear to everybody what the United States is doing, it's doing with the support of many nations around the world."

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