Iraqi bullet for Hussein cheaper than war, Bush spokesman says

But president appears to take a softer tone

`Regime change is the policy'

October 02, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's spokesman bluntly suggested yesterday that the people of Iraq rise up and remove Saddam Hussein from power, even if it means killing him.

"The cost of one bullet," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, would spare the United States the billions of dollars it would cost to wage war against Iraq.

Fleischer also suggested that a forced exile of Hussein would be far cheaper than war.

Bush has long supported "regime change" in Iraq. But Fleischer's comments were the bluntest call yet for Iraqi citizens to forcibly remove their leader.

In Congress and at the United Nations, the president has run into stiff resistance over his demand for sweeping authority to use military force against Iraq. In response to critics who oppose the use of force to remove another world leader, Bush has suggested recently that his chief goal is to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

But in comments yesterday, Fleischer seemed to signal that Bush is committed to removing Hussein as the only real solution, whatever it takes.

Asked about estimates that a full-blown war with Iraq could cost the United States up to $9 billion a month, Fleischer said: "The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that."

He added that "a one-way ticket" for Hussein - presumably meaning his exile from Iraq - would also satisfy Bush's call for a change in leadership.

"There are many options that the president hopes the world and people of Iraq will exercise themselves that gets rid of the threat," Fleischer said.

"Regime change is the policy," he added. "In whatever form it takes."

Bush, speaking earlier in the day, appeared to sound a softer tone, saying after a meeting with lawmakers that a U.S. attack on Iraq was not his "first choice."

The president said he is open to proposals from other U.N. countries for dealing with Hussein and that he is working closely with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"We'll be speaking with one voice here in the country," Bush said. "It's going to be important for the world to hear that voice."

It was unclear whether Fleischer's comments would complicate the negotiations in Congress or at the United Nations. At the State Department, which is courting international backing for Bush's effort to disarm Iraq, a senior official refused to echo Fleischer's message.

"We're keeping out of the bullet business," the official said.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Maryland Democrat, said that while Hussein would likely have to be removed in the end, the Bush administration should be focused not on the need to kill a world leader but on the need for disarmament.

"That's what people are willing to talk about," Wynn said.

It has been official policy since 1976 that the United States will not seek to assassinate world leaders. What Fleischer did yesterday - encouraging citizens of another country to overthrow their president - has never been barred. It is rare, though, for a White House official to publicly endorse the killing of a foreign leader.

Late in the day, White House officials stressed that it was not specific U.S. policy to seek the assassination of Hussein but that "if the Iraqi people took matters into their own hands, no one would shed a tear."

In another sign that Hussein's removal remains a primary goal, some of the president's allies on Capitol Hill are expected to meet with Iraqi opposition groups today to discuss "the liberation of Iraq, mobilization of opposition forces, and planning for a post-Saddam democracy," a Senate Republican leadership aide said.

Bush made his effort to remove Hussein more personal last week. At a fund-raiser in Texas, he told his audience that the Iraqi leader had once sought to assassinate a former U.S. president - Bush's father.

"There's no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us," Bush said. "After all, this is a guy that tried to kill my dad at one time."

Sun staff writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

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