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Bush Skirts Iraq War Question, But VP Again Makes Argument

By Paul Richter

and James Gerstenzang

President Bush on Thursday skirted the intensifying debate over U.S. intentions toward Iraq, but allowed his vice president to again make the case for military action against Saddam Hussein.

At a fund-raiser in Oklahoma City, Bush declared: “We should not allow the world’s worst leaders to develop the world’s worst weapons.” But he mentioned neither Iraq nor its president by name, seeking instead to suggest that he continues to carefully weigh his options.

“I got a lot of tools at my disposal, and I’m a patient man,” Bush said.

Speaking in San Antonio, Vice President Dick Cheney repeated almost word for word the arguments for swift military action that he first made Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

On Thursday, he told Korean War veterans that Hussein has gathered chemical and biological weapons and may acquire a nuclear bomb “very soon.”

“Armed with an arsenal of these weapons, sitting atop 10 percent of the world’s oil, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, to take control of the world’s energy supply, and to directly threaten America’s friends,” he said.

Hussein also would “subject the United States, and any other nation, to the threat of nuclear blackmail,” Cheney said.

The contrast in these messages underscores the White House’s division of labor on the issue.

Cheney is spelling out the rationale for war in an effort to influence the intensifying debate over the wisdom of an attack. Bush, saying less and steering clear of most details, can deflect criticism from abroad by saying that he has not yet chosen a course.

Bush’s remarks came in a fund-raising and get-out-the-vote trip conducted after four days out of the public eye at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Bush said the U.S. efforts in the Middle East since Sept. 11 could have positive effects.

“I understand that history gives us an opportunity to make the world more peaceful. See, out of the evil done to America is going to come some incredible good,” Bush said.

He continued: “And you need to tell your little ones that part of that good is a more peaceful world, that there’s going to be some steep hills to climb between now and then. But by being tough and strong, patient, smart and wise about using our assets and all the tools at our disposal, that we can make the world more peaceful for generations to come,” he said.

Cheney also contended that U.S. action in the Middle East could create a new stability in the region, but he gave greater stress to the dangers that the Bush administration says are now posed by Hussein’s regime.