WASHINGTON -- President Bush is methodically laying the foundation to overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein, perhaps with military action, and he may feel compelled to strike without warning.
In recent weeks, the administration has intensified its rhetoric against Saddam and unveiled a new policy that calls for pre-emptive action against enemies armed with weapons of mass destruction.
Aides say Bush's resolve has not been weakened by the Mideast crisis, tension in southeast Asia or qualms of U.S. allies.
Behind closed doors at the White House, the president reacted with dismay to reports that U.S. military leaders were lobbying against an Iraqi invasion anytime soon.
Bush told supporters this week: "When we see evil -- I know it may hurt some people's feelings, it may not be what they call diplomatically correct -- but I'm calling evil for what it is. Evil is evil, and we will fight it with all our might."
Bush may choose diplomatic pressure or covert action to undermine Saddam. If he decides to go to war, there will be more choices -- such as whether to follow his father's blueprint or launch an unconventional attack.
Most analysts assume Bush would slowly generate support inside and outside the country with a series of warnings to Saddam and a deliberate marshaling of U.S. troops. After all, the world saw the Persian Gulf War coming for six months before Bush's father ordered the attack.
But there may be little or no warning this time.
If the United States' estimation of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program is correct, a long buildup to war could be catastrophic, analysts say.
Given notice, Saddam might strike the United States first or help a terrorist group do so. He could become cornered and desperate -- and presumably armed with a greater arsenal of deadly weapons than he had during the Gulf War.
"We're now beginning to understand that we can't wait for these folks to deliver the weapons of mass destruction and see what they do with them before we act," said Philip D. Zelikow, a University of Virginia history professor who worked for the National Security Council under Bush's father.
"And we're beginning to understand that we might not want to give people like Saddam Hussein advance warning that we're going to strike," he said.
Saddam, meanwhile, is showing more aggressiveness. On Friday, U.S. aircraft bombed an Iraqi military facility in response to an Iraqi attack the previous day on aircraft patrolling the southern "no-fly" zone. It was the fourth such strike in a month.
Some top military leaders favor delaying an Iraqi invasion until next year and perhaps not do it at all. They warn that at least 200,000 troops would be needed. They want the focus to be on covert intelligence operations.
Leaving a White House meeting with Bush, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he told Bush: "There's a reason why your father stopped and didn't go to Baghdad."
Ron Fournier has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 1993.
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