The U.S. political debate over Iraq intensified Friday when a leading Democrat, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, argued against unilateral military action to oust Saddam Hussein.
In a Washington speech, Senator Kennedy said the Bush administration has so far failed to make the case that Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction poses an immediate threat to the United States.
Saying that war should be a last resort and not a first response, Senator Kennedy urged the president to exhaust all other options through the United Nations to force Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons before moving toward military action.
"It is possible to love America while concluding that it is not now wise to go to war," he said. "The standard that should guide us is especially clear when lives are on the line. We must ask what is right for our country, and not [political] party."
Senator Kennedy's comments urging caution echo the views of other prominent Democrats who have spoken out this week including former Vice President Al Gore and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Despite those doubts from Democrats, President Bush continued to press his case against Iraq during a speech in Colorado on behalf of Republican congressional candidates.
"I am willing to give peace a chance to work," he said. "I want the United Nations to work. I want him to do what he said he would do. But for the sake of your children's future, we must make sure that this madman never has the capacity to hurt us with a nuclear weapon or to use the stockpiles of anthrax that we know he has."
Congress is expected to begin debate next week on a resolution that would authorize the president to use military force to disarm Iraq if necessary. Although that resolution is expected to pass, the debate has been complicated in recent days by escalating partisan rhetoric on both sides.
Some Democrats remain hopeful that a tough United Nations resolution authorizing the return of weapons inspectors might lead to the disarmament of Iraq without the use of force.
Former President Bill Clinton made that case on NBC's Today program. "And the resolution should also say that if he [Saddam] doesn't allow that or later he stops them, then the United Nations is authorized to use force," he said. "I believe that would get us not only the support of the British, but a great deal more unity at home and the support of our NATO allies and huge numbers of people throughout the world."
But most Republicans remain skeptical of placing too much faith in the United Nations and want to give the president the option of unilateral military action as soon as possible.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott says he is confident the Bush administration will not be alone in its willingness to use force against Saddam Hussein.
"We are going to get international support," he said. "It is not just going to be the United States and Great Britain. There will be a lot of others who will be involved."
Public opinion polls indicate the debate over Iraq has now joined the economy as one of the major campaign issues in the November congressional elections.