Washington President Bush on Wednesday left open the option of a military attack on Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. Bush said the Iraqi president "needs to understand I am serious."
A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that Bush's top advisers and agencies of the government had been directed to develop and refine a full range of options.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the recommendations would then be circulated within the government and sent to the White House so Bush could make a final decision.
After meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Bush acknowledged that he is considering various options to deal with Saddam, but he would not disclose any details.
"I will keep them close to my vest," Bush said. "President Saddam Hussein needs to understand I am serious about defending our country."
But Bush also said any alliance between terrorist organizations and terror-supporting nations with a history of pursuing nuclear or other destructive weapons would be "devastating for those of us who fight for freedom," and the United States would not tolerate it.
"We, the free world, must make it clear to these nations they have a choice to make," Bush said. "I will keep all options available if they don't make the choice."
CIA Director George Tenet is said to favor a plan that relies heavily on covert action, rather than an open military campaign.
In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency already is authorized to try to destabilize the Baghdad government.
Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested Tuesday, apparently in jest, that "natural causes" might be the solution. Powell, 64, noted Saddam was the same age but said he did not appear to be in as good condition.
Powell and other senior administration officials said the preference is to bring down Saddam with political and diplomatic measures.
"The president is not asking for a war budget," Powell told the Senate Budget Committee.
Referring to Iran and North Korea, as well as Iraq, Powell said: "As a prudence, we should be examining options with respect to all these countries, but in the first instance, diplomatic and political means."
Last week, Powell told Congress that the United States might have to act unilaterally to bring about a "regime change" in Baghdad.
Powell has taken the lead in making the public case for ousting Saddam. He frequently cites the Iraqi president's refusal to expose suspect weapons sites to U.N. inspection. And Powell says the Iraqi people deserve a better government.
Most of Saddam's senior advisers and his military commanders are considered to be loyal to him. He has executed others suspected of plotting a palace coup.
Powell said there was no battle plan on Bush's desk Â at the moment Â to attack any nation.
Bush, meanwhile, is looking ahead to a trip to Asia next week. There he will offer unconditional talks to North Korea, Powell said.
"We hope the North Koreans will take us up on it," Powell told the Senate Budget Committee Tuesday.
"He will talk about the hope he has for North Korea that some day the North Korean people will enjoy the kind of life that South Koreans have," Powell said in previewing Bush's trip to China, Japan and South Korea.
Bush bracketed North Korea with Iran and Iraq in an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech last month. But Powell said "he has no plan on his desk right now to begin a war with any nation."
The speech and other heated rhetoric have raised questions around the world about Bush's intentions. Speculation has centered on the United States taking its war against terrorism beyond Afghanistan.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has jabbed at the "axis of evil" rhetoric, advising the Bush administration "to use words with care."
He also asked Powell to be mindful of the constitutional requirement that it is up to Congress, not the president, to declare war Â although he said he might vote for one if it came to that.
From the outset, Powell has championed dialogue with North Korea, a policy begun by the Clinton administration.
But Bush ordered a review, putting the policy on ice for several months. Last June, the offer to Pyongyang was renewed. There has been no response from the largely reclusive government.
Powell said the president would make the offer again in South Korea, a gesture to that country's President Kim Dae-jung, a longtime proponent of dialogue with the communist North.
Bush is "very much looking forward to visiting South Korea to show that the bond between the United States and the South Koreans is as strong as ever," Powell said.
At the same time, though, "We will not shrink from pointing out the nature of the North Korean regime," Powell said. "It is a regime that does things that do not benefit its own people."
He cited development of advanced weapons that are sold to other countries.