HOUSTON -- President Bush prepared yesterday for an imminent military confrontation with Iraq but vigorously denied that the timing was planned to coincide with today's opening of the Republican National Convention.
The confrontation was expected to result from an attempt, possibly as early as today, by United Nations officials to inspect one or more government ministries in Baghdad in search of information related to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
If Iraqi President Saddam Hussein resists the inspection -- as he did for three weeks last month when U.N. officials tried to enter the Agriculture Ministry -- the United States and its allies are ready to pound targets in Iraq with a new round of air strikes.
"Saddam Hussein has to realize that the world will not ignore these United Nations requirements," Mr. Bush said at the White House yesterday afternoon upon his return from a long weekend Camp David. "He cannot be allowed to dictate what can and cannot be inspected. . . . The United States has plans to make sure that he does what he's supposed to do."
But the president said he was affronted by a newspaper report quoting unidentified administration officials who suggested that Mr. Bush was trying to provoke Iraq into a battle that would unite the country behind him as he claims nomination for a second term this week.
"The campaign and the convention have nothing to do with this,"Mr. Bush said, responding to questions about the report in yesterday's editions of the New York Times. "This is the national security interests of the United States; this is obligations to support the United Nations. I have responsibilities as president and responsibilities as commander-in-chief, and I will go through with those responsibilities regardless of the politics."
But he went on to allude to what is likely to be a dominant theme of his re-election effort against the Democratic nominee, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton: that he was a pilot shot down in World War II and Mr. Clinton has been accused of evading the draft to avoid the Vietnam War.
"I do not make decisions regarding military force lightly," the presidentsaid. "I have been there myself. I know what it's like, and I don't commit somebody else's son or daughter to battle or to any kind of combat unless it is the right thing to do regardless of politics."
U.S. officials have been preparing for weeks to step up the pressure on Mr. Hussein, who has resisted or reneged on nearly every commitment he made in the cease-fire agreement that formally ended the Persian Gulf war last year.
Mr. Bush insisted that the specific timing of this confrontation, which administration officials said could come at any time, was chosen by the U.N. inspectors.
"When they do these inspections is strictly their decision," he said. "The U.S. role is to provide support for their efforts. From now on, some will accuse us of political opportunism in every move I make," he said. "That's unfortunate, but it is not going to deter me from doing what is right, regardless of the political fallout. . . . I hope I have demonstrated that enough to earn the trust of the American people."
In fact, the U.S. government has been looking for an excuse that would provide the rationale to resume bombing raids that it hopes would finish the job of destroying Mr. Hussein's military capability.
The Pentagon has drawn up a two-phase plan that would send bombers first toward Iraqi air defenses and then toward facilities that support its military capability, such as the communications network.
An Iraqi refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors would provide the best opportunity to spark such an attack, administration officials said. The United States and its allies in the coalition that evicted Iraq from Kuwait last year are united in their determination to prevent Mr.Hussein from obtaining a capability to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
The allies, particularly Britain and France, have been less willing to support military action to punish Mr. Hussein for his attacks on rebellious Iraqi Kurds and Shiite Muslims, although Mr. Bush has been pressing them for this support.
Mr. Bush yesterday stressed his determination to see the enforcement of U.N. resolutions that demand the humane treatment of all Iraqi citizens.
This new resolve to engage Mr. Hussein developed during the three-week standoff at the Agriculture Ministry, when it became clear that he intends to remain a threat to security in the region, officials said.
The United States has been positioning personnel, equipment and ships in the area over the past few weeks, including Patriot defense missiles that were deployed in Kuwait and Bahrain.
Lt. Gen. Michael A. Nelson, the new Air Force Commander for Central Command, which oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East, left for the region Thursday. His predecessor directed the air war with Iraq last year.