WASHINGTON -- President Bush expressed "deep and growing concern" yesterday about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's support for terrorist groups, warning that "Iraqi support for terrorism would indeed have serious consequences."
But Mr. Bush, who also voiced alarm over the "systematic dismantling" of Kuwait and mistreatment of Kuwaiti citizens and foreigners by Iraq's occupying forces, stressed that he did not believe Washington and Baghdad were moving closer to war.
"I want to see a peaceful resolution," he told reporters before flying to Camp David for the weekend. "I don't intend to be sending a signal that I'm shifting more towards the military [solution]," he said.
Nonetheless, he referred several times to his concern about possible terrorist attacks against Americans and refused to rule out the option of striking the first blow in a war against Iraq.
"Well, I'm not making any commitments" not to strike first, he said. "There are so many contingencies. . . . The treatment of American citizens is one thing that concerns me greatly; possible use of terror is another thing that concerns me greatly, so we'll just have to leave it."
Then, in one of several warnings to Iraq, Mr. Bush said: "We hold Saddam Hussein responsible if there is any terrorist act against us."
President Bush said he raised the "the possibility of Iraqi-sponsored terrorism" with congressional leaders at a White House meeting yesterday to discuss the Persian Gulf crisis.
White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk said the president's concerns about terrorism stem from the presence of well-known terrorist groups in Baghdad, including the Abu Nidal organization, the May 15 organization and the Palestine Liberation Front, headed by Abu Abbas.
U.S. officials said they were not aware of any "specific or credible" terrorist threat that prompted the president's warning, but "obviously . . . there is a heightened level of concern that terrorism may take place," Mr. Popadiuk said.
Mr. Bush added that terrorism was on his mind because he knew how "irrational" Saddam Hussein could be.
"As these economic sanctions work, I expect you might see more heated rhetoric from him," said Mr. Bush when asked to respond to Mr. Hussein's vow to fight to a "final victory" rather than retreat from Kuwait. "It would not surprise me if he had to resort to this kind of flamboyant rhetoric in order to keep his public opinion behind him."