Washington Secretary of State Colin Powell told members of Congress Wednesday that there must be a "regime change" in Iraq and he suggested that the United States "might have to do it alone."
At a House hearing, Powell said President Bush was considering "the most serious set of options one might imagine" for dealing with President Saddam Hussein and his defiance of U.N. international weapons inspections.
"The president is examining a full range of options," Powell said. He declined to say whether Bush was considering a military assault on Iraq, or additional economic and diplomatic pressures instead.
Europeans, Arabs, other U.S. allies and Russia have all criticized the idea of taking military action against Iraq as part of the widening U.S. war against terrorism, aimed mostly at the al-Qaida organization.
Powell said inspectors must have an "unfettered right" to conduct long-term searches in Iraq for suspect weapons sites, a post-Gulf War operation that has been suspended since inspectors left Iraq in 1998.
Bush "is leaving no stone unturned" as to what the United States might do if Saddam continues to resist inspection, Powell said, using harsh rhetoric at a time when Iraq is seeking U.N. talks on the subject.
Many analysts, both inside and outside the U.S. government, suspect Iraq is trying to develop long-range missiles, biological and chemical weapons and possible nuclear devices as well.
Questioned at the House International Relations Committee hearing, Powell said U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iraq was unlikely to develop a nuclear weapon within a year or shortly thereafter.
"We still believe strongly in regime change in Iraq, and we look forward to the day when a democratic, representative government at peace with its neighbors leads Iraq to rejoin the family of nations," he said.
On Tuesday, Powell had a curt and negative response to an Iraqi offer, conveyed through the Arab League, for a dialogue with the United Nations.
"It should be a very short discussion," Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The inspectors have to go back on our terms."
Bush has denounced Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" that includes Iran and North Korea Â countries developing weapons of mass destruction as well.
Powell accused Iran of trying to destabilize the fragile, interim government in Afghanistan, but still said he was open to U.S. talks with Iranian leaders.
Powell said the United States had a long-standing list of grievances with Iran, including concern about its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and its sponsorship of terrorism. He cited an attempt by Palestinians to smuggle in arms from Iran.
Iran's latest provocation, Powell said, has been its "unhelpful activities" in Afghanistan after helping in the U.S.-led war against terrorism there and in setting up an interim government in Kabul.
"We can demonstrate to them that it is not in their interest to destabilize the government that they helped to create," Powell said.
Even so, Powell said he was "still convinced that we may be able to talk to Iran, that we may be able to have a reasonable conversation with Iranian leaders."
Saddam suspended international weapons inspections in December 1998, and despite tough economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council has stood his ground.
Faced with Arab complaints that the Iraqi people were the victims, the Bush administration is trying to have the council impose so-called "smart sanctions" instead. The idea is to permit exports to Iraq of consumer goods and even equipment that might possibly be useful in military programs while tightening the screws on serious smuggling.
Powell told the committee as he defended the Bush administration's budget request for $25.3 billion for U.S. international affairs spending, that if Saddam had nothing to hide he would admit the inspectors.
On another subject, Powell took a big step toward agreement with Russia on cuts in U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear weapons stockpiles.
Last year, Bush and Vladimir Putin pledged sharp reductions in the two nations' arsenals but did not agree on how to carry out the cutbacks.
Bush said he preferred an informal arrangement. Putin wanted the reductions codified in a formal agreement.
On Tuesday, Powell said, "We do expect it will be legally binding."
He said the administration was considering an executive order by the president or even a treaty, something senior administration officials have dismissed as a tedious and out-of-date approach.
In a statement at the start of the hearing, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said arms reductions "must rest on more than a handshake."
And, Biden said, any formal agreement should be in treaty form, which would require Senate approval.
A proponent of arms control, Biden said the Senate would not allow the Bush administration "to do an end around it."