Powell says no ``axis'' war plan on President Bush's desk _ at the moment

Tuesday, February 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress Tuesday there is no plan on President Bush's desk _ at the moment _ to start a war with the ``axis of evil.''

But Powell hedged a bit on Iraq, one of the three nations singled out by Bush in his State of the Union speech last month. And, the secretary insisted again there must be a ``regime change'' in Baghdad, possibly through natural causes.

Powell made his remarks to the Senate Budget Committee while defending the administration's request for $8.1 billion for the State Department and other foreign service operations.

Powell said he is the same age as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and _ with what appeared to be a hopeful chuckle _ added: ``I believe that I am in better shape than he is.''

Meanwhile, two White House officials, reinforcing Powell's message, said Bush has not decided on how he will achieve his goal of regime change in Iraq.

The officials, asking not to be identified, said Bush has not decided to take military action, let alone determined what type to take.

They said the ouster of Saddam will be a focal point of Vice President Dick Cheney's planned trip next month to Europe and the Middle East.

It is unclear, officials added, whether Bush will have decided by then how he wants to depose Saddam. They said Cheney's mission may be limited to building support for whatever action Bush settles on.

Ever since Bush singled out Iraq, Iran and North Korea with tough words, other nations have wondered whether he would take his military campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan to one or all of the three outcast states.

But Powell said, ``He has no plan on his desk to start a war with any nation.''

Pressed by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the committee chairman, Powell specified there is no war plan for Iran and North Korea. But he said Bush is exploring options for dealing with Iraq.

``Iraq is in a slightly different category,'' he said.

Pressed again by Conrad, Powell said there is no plan to attack the Arab country at this point.

On another subject, Powell said a letter sent to him by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was ``somewhat positive'' but he did not provide any details nor was he asked to supply them by the sparsely attended budget hearing.

On Bush's trip to Asia next week, Powell said, the president will renew an offer to hold talks with North Korea and he hopes for eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.