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White House Details Iraqi Case Before Congressional Leaders

The washington post -- WASHINGTON

Administration officials began detailing their case against Iraq to congressional leaders in secret Thursday, as the Senate’s top Democrat said President Bush would have an easier time winning backing from Congress for the use of force if he could first gain U.N. Security Council approval for tougher action.

Responding to demands for specific evidence about the threat posed by Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and intelligence chief George Tenet provided a highly classified briefing to the top four leaders of Congress.

Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters the session was “helpful” and gave the leaders a chance to ask many questions that have been bothering them. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the minority leader, described the meeting as “interesting and troubling,” suggesting that administration officials imparted information not previously disclosed.

The briefing followed recent warnings from lawmakers in both parties that they would have difficulty supporting military action against Iraq without new intelligence information that would justify a pre-emptive U.S. attack. Administration officials indicated they possess new information about Iraqi capabilities, but have shared none of this in public or in earlier closed-door briefings.

Although Bush expressed the hope earlier this week of receiving a vote of support before Congress recesses in a few weeks, Daschle indicated Thursday that his own backing and that of other senators would hinge in part on Bush’s success in gathering international support. He suggested that Bush try to get the kind of U.N. Security Council resolution -- authorizing the use of “all necessary means” to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait -- that Bush’s father obtained before the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

“That, too, will be a central factor in how quickly the Congress acts,” Daschle told reporters. “If the international community supports it, if we can get the information we’ve been seeking, then I think we can move to a resolution. But short of that, I think it would be difficult for us to move until that information is provided and some indication of the level of international support is also evident.”

Daschle stopped short of insisting that Bush must first win a Security Council resolution. Bush hasn’t indicated whether he’ll seek a U.N. resolution, and administration officials said the most they could expect would be language backing more aggressive inspections in Iraq, leaving open the possibility of military action should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein resist.

Iraq also was the focus of discussion at two other closed-door administration briefings Thursday: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joined Cheney and Tenet to talk about weapons proliferation with 25 senators at a Pentagon breakfast.