The White House on Monday played down publicly aired differences among top Bush advisers about an attack on Iraq, as President Bush's press secretary dismissed apparent disagreements as "much ado about no difference."
The appearance of a rift among the most senior American officials has grown following the release Sunday of excerpts of an interview by Secretary of State Colin Powell with the BBC in which he said weapons inspectors should return to Iraq as a first step in dealing with Saddam Hussein. That seemed to contradict remarks made by Vice President Cheney indicating that inspectors would be of no use.
The views expressed by Bush's two highest ranking lieutenants appeared to elevate a dispute between hawkish administration officials -- particularly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and civilian officials in the Pentagon -- and others -- particularly Powell's State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- who favor a more cautious approach.
"They haven't spoken differently, they've spoken the same," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said aboard Air Force One en route to Pittsburgh for a Labor Day speech by Bush. Pressed further, the spokesman added, "The American position, as the vice president said in his remarks, and Secretary Powell said, and as the president has said, is that arms inspectors in Iraq are a means to an end, but the end is knowledge that Iraq has lived up to its promises that it made to end the Gulf War, that it has in fact disarmed, that it does not possess weapons of mass destruction."
Bush himself, on a Labor Day visit to a worker-training facility outside Pittsburgh, said nothing about Iraq in his public remarks Monday, and he declined to take questions from reporters during a tour of the center. As his aides have offered their competing views in a variety of public formats, Bush has avoided direct comments on Iraq for 12 days.
The administration also brushed aside a statement by a top Iraqi official raising the possibility of resumed weapons inspections. Speaking at an environmental summit meeting in South Africa, Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, said he would meet with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Tuesday to discuss the matter.
Aziz said Iraq would consider readmitting the inspectors as part of an overall agreement to resolve the regime's dispute with the United States. "Let us solve the problem comprehensively," Aziz said in Johannesburg in brief remarks to reporters.
"Iraq changes positions on whether they'll let the inspectors in more often than Saddam Hussein changes bunkers," Fleischer said.
Powell, in excerpts of an interview released by the BBC, said return of the inspectors, who left in 1998, would be a "first step" toward solving the standoff with Iraq. "The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return," Powell said.
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