WASHINGTON - The White House chief of staff refused yesterday to rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons during a war with Iraq to prevent what he called a "holocaust" caused by the possible use of weapons of mass destruction by Baghdad.
"Should Saddam Hussein have any thought that he would use a weapon of mass destruction, he should anticipate that the United States will use whatever means necessary to protect us and the world from a holocaust," Andrew H. Card Jr. said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Asked if that included the possible use of nuclear weapons, Card replied: "I'm not going to put anything on the table or off the table, but we have a responsibility to make sure Saddam Hussein and his generals do not use weapons of mass destruction."
The warning came as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell stepped up a campaign to convince skeptical Europeans of the need to disarm Hussein's regime, saying, "We will not shrink from war if that is the only way to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction." He said the United States reserved the right to act against Iraq "alone or in a coalition of the willing."
Addressing world political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, Powell said, "We have seen these sorts of evil leaders before." He continued: "There are still leaders around who will say, `You do not have the will to prevail over my evil.' And I think we are facing one of those times now."
Card's statement recalled the implicit threat of using nuclear weapons contained in a 1991 warning sent by then-Secretary of State James A. Baker to Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, a warning that some believe deterred Hussein from launching chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops during the war that forced Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
An administration official said yesterday that Card was merely restating longstanding United States policy.
The United States has never renounced the first use of nuclear weapons, the official noted, speaking on condition of anonymity; the point is to avoid giving any nation the impression that it could use weapons of mass destruction with impunity. The Pentagon is known to develop contingency plans for an almost limitless array of wartime scenarios.
Card's comments marked the second warning in less than a week against the possible use of chemical or biological weapons by Iraq. In a speech last week, Bush warned Iraqi military officials that they faced war-crimes prosecution if they followed orders to use weapons of mass destruction.
The warnings came as the Bush administration faced what could be a crucial week in its march toward a possible new war in the Persian Gulf, a period that will include the president's State of the Union address tomorrow night.
The United States and other nations on the United Nations Security Council will listen today to reports by the two chief U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, on the extent of Iraqi cooperation in getting rid of its weapons of mass destruction.
Blix's report is expected to be the more negative of the two, noting that inspectors have not been able to conduct private interviews with Iraqi scientists, that Iraq has sought to block overflights by American-supplied U2 spy planes to guide inspectors to suspect sites and that Iraq has refused to supply answers to questions about stocks of germ-warfare and chemical-weapons material, as well as munitions, that inspectors believed existed in the late 1990s.
His report is expected to provide added ammunition to the Bush administration in its campaign to convince the American public and the world that Hussein is continuing his defiance of the Security Council and that, without an extensive change by Iraq, further inspections are pointless.
However, under pressure from longtime allies and domestic critics for the inspections to be given more time, the administration is unlikely to push the Security Council for an immediate halt to inspections. Instead, it is expected to use the next two or more weeks for high-level contacts to convince world leaders that Hussein is not complying with U.N. demands.
Meeting with Blair
Bush meets Friday at Camp David with his closest overseas ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Interviewed by the BBC yesterday, Blair said the inspectors should be given the time they need to determine whether Iraq is cooperating with the United Nations, but said this should not take months.
"We are in no great rush to judgment tomorrow or the day after, but clearly time is running out," Powell said yesterday in a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos. "We will work through these issues patiently and deliberately with our friends and allies."
The administration has been thrown on the defensive in recent days by the failure of U.N. inspectors to turn up major incriminating evidence against Iraq - despite intelligence leads supplied by the United States and other countries.