As the administration intensified contacts with Iraqi opposition leaders, President George W. Bush said he has no timetable for deciding on a military strike against Iraq and may not decide this year.
"And if I did, I wouldn't tell you or the enemy," Bush told The Associated Press during a brief interview Friday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Pressed on whether he would decide this year, he said, "Not necessarily."
Bush's comments came as U.S. officials met with Iraqi opposition groups intent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein and amid growing unease from members of Congress about the wisdom of taking military action against Iraq without just cause.
On Thursday, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas, cautioned against an unprovoked U.S. attack against Saddam. Senators Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel have been among Republicans who also have expressed concern.
"My own view would be to let him bluster, let him rant and rave all he wants," Armey said of the Iraqi president in a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, indicating a crack in Republican support for Bush's push to topple Saddam. "As long as he behaves himself within his own borders, we should not be addressing any attack or resources against him."
Six Iraqi opposition leaders spent two hours meeting with top administration on Friday, and emerged saying they had won encouragement from the Bush administration when they brought their case for ousting President Saddam Hussein to Washington Friday.
"Our shared goal is that the Iraqi people should be free," a senior U.S. official quoted Secretary of State Colin Powell as telling the opposition figures as he dropped in on their talks with senior U.S. officials.
"He (Powell) wished us well and encouraged us," commented Ahmed Chalabi, visiting head of the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress umbrella group that has had troubled ties with Washington due to alleged mismanagement of its funds.
After the meeting, department spokesman Philip Reeker said the talks focused on "coordination of the U.S. government's work with the Iraqi opposition and enhancing cooperation among Iraqi opposition groups."
A spokesman for the Iraqi group, Dr. Hamid al-Bayati, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the Iraqis presented their vision "for the overthrow of the dictatorial regime in Iraq."
They will also speak with Vice President Dick Cheney, currently on vacation at his home in Wyoming, by video link-up Saturday. The session with Cheney is a measure of the importance Washington is attaching to the opposition after years of dismissing it as divided and ineffective.
The Iraqis left after two hours of talks at the State Department saying their hosts, Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, seemed more intent on overthrowing the chief criminal in Bush's "axis of evil".
"We sense more seriousness and (the) commitment from U.S. government to overthrow (the) Saddam regime and to work with the opposition," said Hamid al-Bayati, a senior member of the Iran-based Supreme Counsel of Islamic Revolution, who spoke to reporters on behalf of the six groups at the talks.