WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush, preparing the nation for the possibility of war, said last night the United States will drive Saddam Hussein from power if it comes to war in Iraq – with or without support from France, Germany and other skeptical allies.

“I will not leave the American people at the mercy of the Iraqi dictator and his weapons,” Bush said at a prime-time news conference.

Bush said he had not decided whether to invade Iraq but that it was only a matter of days before a U.N. Security Council vote on a U.S.-backed resolution authorizing force. He said the United States wants the Security Council to vote even if the resolution appears likely to fail.

“It’s time for people to show their cards and let people know where they stand in relation to Saddam.” France, Germany, Russia and China say they oppose such a resolution.

“Our mission is clear in Iraq,” the president said. “Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament. In order to disarm, it will mean regime change. I’m confident that we’ll be able to achieve that objective in a way that minimizes the loss of life.”

Bush said it was up to Saddam to avert war. “It’s his choice to make whether or not we go to war. He’s the person that can make the choice of war or peace. Thus far he’s made the wrong choice.”

The president’s news conference came on the eve of a crucial Security Council meeting. Today, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and his counterpart, Mohamed ElBaradei, will report on Iraq’s measure of cooperation in eliminating its banned weapons. Their assessment could weigh heavily in determining the outcome of the Security Council’s vote on a resolution to authorize force.

Intensifying his case against Saddam, Bush is considering a major address next week to explain the justification and risks of military conflict, aides said. The speech could include a final warning to Saddam while urging journalists and humanitarian workers to leave Iraq, they said.

But officials said the president is not inclined to set an eleventh-hour deadline for Iraq’s disarmament, fearing Saddam would use the grace period to further divide U.S. allies. They did not rule out the United States backing a British proposal that would give the Iraqi leader a few more days to disarm. But aides acknowledged that the British proposal was unlikely to be a galvanizing force.

Bush has privately expressed frustration with Saddam’s ability to turn France and other allies against the resolution just a few months after a similar measure passed 15-0 in the Security Council, aides said.

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