UNITED NATIONS -- President Bush demanded Thursday that world leaders force Saddam Hussein to destroy his weapons of mass destruction, saying the lives of millions of people will be at risk and the United Nations "will be irrelevant" unless it confronts Iraq.
"The just demands of peace and security will be met -- or action will be unavoidable," Bush warned. "And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power."
"We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather," Bush told the U.N. General Assembly. "We must stand up for our security and for the permanent rights and hopes of mankind."
Bush made his case against the backdrop of widespread hesitation among U.S. allies -- and American lawmakers -- to use force against Baghdad. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan cautioned the United States against taking action on its own without Security Council backing.
Annan said efforts to persuade Iraq to comply with resolutions calling for weapons inspections and disarmament must continue, But if Iraq is defiant the Security Council "must face its responsibilities," he said.
Speaking before Bush, Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Lafer, reflected the concerns of most nations, saying "force can be used only through the Security Council and if other means are exhausted."
But Bush argued that extended diplomacy would mean betting the lives of millions in a reckless gamble. "And this is a risk we must not take," he said.
Bush's stance also has been questioned in Congress.
But after his speech, a key House Democrat applauded it as "a positive step."
"There are many questions about going to war, but I commend the president for the speech that he made today, the values that he presented, the commitment of the United States that he brought to the U.N," Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a member of the Democratic Party leadership and the House intelligence committee, told CNN.
In his speech, Bush said, "Iraq has answered a decade of U.N. demands with a decade of defiance. All the world now faces a test ... and the United Nations, a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced ... or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding ... or will it be irrelevant?"
Bush offered to work in concert with other nations on a resolution "to meet our common challenge." And, he said, "if the Iraqi regime defies us again the world must move deliberately and decisively" against the Iraqi leader.
Bush's expression of willingness to act through the United Nations appeared to respond to a growing chorus of opposition to unilateral U.S. military action to topple Saddam.
"By heritage and by choice, the United States of America will make that stand," the president said. "Delegates to the United Nations, you have the power to make that stand, as well!"
A senior U.S. official said Secretary of State Colin Powell would work on Friday with the four other permanent members of the Security Council -- Russia, China, France and Britain -- on a resolution that would set a deadline for Iraq to comply with demands that it admit weapons inspectors.
Bush said that if Iraq defies a new U.N. resolution demanding the return of inspectors, "the world must move deliberately and decisively" against Saddam.
Before Bush spoke, Annan warned against unilateralism and said any action against Iraq required the legitimacy of U.N. approval.
The senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not say what deadline would be set in a new resolution. But he did say the resolution would demand compliance within weeks, not months.
Already, U.S. military forces are being moved into position to strike against Iraq.
The foreign minister of Qatar, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, said his country did not want war in Iraq.
"The United Nations has to play a role," said Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, speaking in Washington. "We have to work, all of us, to make an effort with the United Nations to say exactly what they want with Iraq."
Bush denounced Iraq for a decade of defiance of U.N. resolutions calling for weapons inspections and disarmament. And on a personal note, Bush said that Iraq's violence and terrorism led to the attempted assassination of his father, former President George H.W. Bush and the emir of Kuwait in 1993.
"Saddam Hussein has made the case against himself," Bush said.
Reflecting long-standing impatience among some Americans with U.N. inaction on various fronts, Bush said, "We created a United Nations Security Council so that -- unlike the League of Nations -- our actions would be more than talk."
On another front, Bush reiterated his commitment to establishment of a Palestinian state and "to human dignity challenged by persistent poverty and raging disease" around the world.
And to a smattering of applause, he announced the United States was rejoining UNESCO, a U.N. agency formed in 1946 to combat intolerance and racism. The Reagan administration in 1984 had quit the educational and cultural group, accusing it of mismanagement and an excessively political program.
Bush backed his call on the other nations to pressure Iraq to comply with a hefty document accusing Saddam of a decade of deception and defiance of 16 U.N. resolutions.
His administration has made clear it feels justified in going it alone if necessary and contends it does not need new legal authority to use force to try to oust Saddam.
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