WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- After weeks of trying to tamp down speculation about a U.S. war with Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged Wednesday that President George W. Bush is considering just such a course of action.
"(The) president has made no decision to go into war with Iraq. He's thinking about it," Rumsfeld said at a "troop talk" with soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas.
A soldier asked Rumsfeld what effect a war with Iraq would have on the U.S. relationship with Russia. It is the sort of question that Rumsfeld routinely declines to answer in news briefings. He did answer Wednesday, although in a roundabout manner.
"I suppose if I answer the question, the implication will be that we're going to have a conflict with Iraq. And I therefore would suggest to the press and everyone here that if I do answer the question, as I'm going to answer the question in a minute, that no one ought to take any assumption away from that," he said.
He continued: "Because the president has made no such decision that we should go into a war with Iraq. He's thinking about it."
Earlier Wednesday, at a news conference at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush insisted they never discussed prospects for a war with Iraq.
"The subject didn't come up in this meeting," he said when asked whether the U.S. military had the capability to carry out the campaign against Iraq alone.
Rumsfeld called the speculation about Iraq a press "frenzy" and has sought repeatedly to discourage the media from speculating on the issue.
"I really do think that it's a mistake for the press and the media to focus excessively on this one subject and particularize everything to it," Rumsfeld said at a news briefing Tuesday. "I find that the debate and the discussion, the national dialogue, the international dialogue is a little out of balance."
At Fort Hood, Rumsfeld also criticized the 10-year, $40 billion trade deal that will be signed soon between Russia and Iraq, saying if Russia wants to attract Western investment, it should not be doing business with states the United States regards as sponsors of terrorism.
"It's anxious to connect with the West and be seen as (an) environment that is hospitable to investment. To the extent that Russia wants to parade its relationships with countries like Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, it sends a signal over the globe that says Russia thinks this is a good thing to do, to deal with the terrorist states, to have them as their relationship-developers," Rumsfeld said.
"It sends a signal that is harmful to them, it seems to me."
Russian officials told the Washington Post Monday the agreement would not violate the decade of U.N. sanctions on Iraq.
Moscow last month released a blueprint to invigorate economic relations with Iran, including in nuclear energy cooperation. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il traveled to Russia Tuesday for an official visit.
Iran, Iraq and North Korea comprise the triumvirate President Bush named as the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech in January.
Rumsfeld said Russia would be unlikely to oppose a U.S. war in Iraq.
"My impression is that the Russian administration is fairly pragmatic at this stage and their interest in the United States is greater than their interest in Iraq. And I suspect that the current leadership in Russia's interest in continuing to point that country towards the West, towards Western Europe, towards North America, is somewhat stronger than their old relationship with Iraq," he said.
In fact, a regime change may help Moscow recover the $8 billion it is owed by Baghdad from the Soviet era.
If U.N. sanctions are lifted -- most likely under a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq -- Russian oil companies would have legal access to exploit major oil fields in Iraq. These reserves are currently off-limits because of the sanctions.
Russia is a major participant and beneficiary in the U.N. administered oil-for-food program, which allows Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil to fund the purchase of food and medicine for a population hard hit by sanctions.
Rumsfeld said Wednesday "a good deal" of that money is being diverted to military purposes by Baghdad.
"In fact a good deal of money is going into buying dump trucks," Rumsfeld said.
The back ends of the trucks are taken off and replaced with missile launch pads and other military equipment and Iraq is "able to continuously improve and strengthen their military in ways that are unhelpful to their neighbors and unhelpful to other countries," he said.