WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Iraq has been stepping up its "relentless" quest for nuclear weapons, seeking specialized materials in recent months, a senior Bush administration official confirmed, as President Bush prepared his arguments to the United Nations this week that there is an urgent need to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
After spending about six hours with Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair returned to London Saturday night, after agreeing that his country could just as easily be the next target of a rogue state or terrorists, according to one report.
Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who has declared repeatedly that Iraq does not possess weapons of mass destruction, was invited to speak to the Iraq's National Assembly, telling them Sunday the United States may be on the verge of a "historic mistake."
"The world has consistently underestimated how close (Saddam) is to acquiring weapons" of mass destruction, a senior administration official told reporters late Saturday. "This is part of the record of Saddam Hussein's continued efforts, relentless efforts to acquire (weapons of mass destruction)," he said.
The official confirmed what had been reported by The New York Times on its Web site Saturday and in the newspaper Sunday, that in the past 14 months Iraq has tried to buy thousands of aluminum tubes specially designed for use in centrifuges in which to enrich uranium to weapons grade.
The senior administration official said that in the days ahead "more additional information will come to light. Old information will be viewed in a new light." All of Iraq's attempts to obtain the specialized tubing were blocked before delivery, the official said.
The New York Times article said that after the Gulf War, American officials discovered that Iraq was pursuing at least two methods for producing highly enriched uranium and that as recently as last month, Saddam gave a morale-boosting speech to Iraq's Atomic Energy Organization.
Senior administration officials told The Washington Post that Bush's speech Thursday to the U.N. General Assembly will lay out the case for urgent action against Iraq and will say time is running out to stop the country's program of developing weapons of mass destruction, the newspaper reported Saturday and Sunday.
In an interview with the Sunday Times of London, Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Europe is just as vulnerable to attack as the United States. "It could indeed be London or Berlin," she told the newspaper. "And I think that is what President Bush and Prime Minister Blair both see."
White House National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters on a conference call after Blair left Camp David Saturday night that Rice had attended the meeting with Blair along with Vice President Dick Cheney, although Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not. The Cabinet secretaries did meet with Bush prior to the Blair meeting.
"The prime minister and the president discussed the common threat the world faces from Saddam Hussein," McCormack said. The two also talked about "intensifying the reconstruction effort" in Afghanistan and about the Middle East, though he could provide no details of conversations other than on Iraq.
Blair, in a joint news conference with Bush Saturday, was broadly supportive of Bush's views about Iraq, saying the country "is an issue for the whole of the international community. But the U.N. has got to be the way of dealing with this issue, not the way of avoiding dealing with it."
"Now, of course, as we showed before in relation to Afghanistan, we want the broadest possible international support," Blair said.
Blair referred to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency "showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapons sites," a report of new construction that suggests new momentum to the development effort.
Bush answered that, "We just heard the prime minister talk about the new report" and added that, "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied -- finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."
However, The Washington Post reported Sunday that a spokesman for the IAEA said there was no new report on Iraq, only ambiguous pictures made public in July of commercially available satellite images. "Construction of a building is one thing. Restarting a nuclear program is another," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the newspaper.
Prior to their meeting Blair said that "the threat from Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological, potentially nuclear weapons capability ... that threat is real."
He added that "the policy of inaction is not a policy we can responsibly subscribe to. So the purpose of our discussion today is to work out the right strategy for dealing with this, because deal with it we must."
Even as Blair and Bush met, a new poll released in Britain indicated that Blair faces substantial public opposition at home to British involvement in any U.S. strike against Iraq that doesn't have U.N. approval.
A poll conducted exclusively for London's Independent newspaper found that 60 percent of those surveyed (and almost two-thirds of Labor Party voters) said Britain shouldn't join any unilateral U.S. strike against Iraq.