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Sun Jun 16, 1:53 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. congressional leaders on Sunday applauded a move by President Bush ( news - web sites) to let the CIA ( news - web sites) conduct covert operations to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ( news - web sites) and urged further action if such efforts fail.
House of Representatives Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri said leaders on Capitol Hill had been briefed on the secret directive by the White House and said he hoped such efforts were successful.
"It is an appropriate action to take. I hope it succeeds in its quest," Gephardt said on ABC's "This Week" program. He has previously endorsed the use of force to oust Saddam.
"It's a wise and prudent thing to do," added House Republican leader Richard Armey of Texas.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee ( news - web sites), also endorsed the move, urging the administration to prepare for additional action should such operations fail.
CHANGE OF REGIME
"We need a regime change in Iraq. If we can do it on the cheap and by having operations involving just special forces and some air power and opponents within ... then that's fine," McCain said. "But we have to be prepared to do whatever is necessary to bring about this regime change."
Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, expressed some reservations about the timing of any such effort.
"There is broad support for a regime change in Iraq," Daschle told the "Fox News Sunday" program. "The question is how do we do it and when do we do it."
Citing the administration's ongoing effort against the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden ( news - web sites), as well as the continuing efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, Daschle said, "I think the timing of all this is very important but we want to work with the administration and try to find the best way and the best time to do this."
Bush has openly declared his desire to remove the Iraqi president, by military force if necessary, but has offered few details of how he plans to accomplish that.
Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped the White House would "make sure that we have a plan that we don't miss on.
"If the covert action doesn't work, we better be prepared to move forward with another action, an overt action," the Delaware Democrat told CBS' "Face the Nation" program. "And it seems to me that we can't afford to miss."
He said Bush had to move quickly to settle disagreements among his advisers.
"We need a plan. And to the best of my knowledge, I know of three distinct plans being discussed within the administration and three distinct points of view as to how to proceed," he said. "The president has to decide."
The Post said the presidential order directs the CIA to use all available tools, including:
-- Increased support to Iraqi opposition groups and forces inside and outside Iraq including money, weapons, equipment, training and intelligence information.
-- Expanded efforts to collect intelligence within Iraqi government, military, security service and overall population where pockets of intense anti-Saddam sentiment have been detected.
-- Possible use of CIA and U.S. Special Forces teams, similar to those that have been successfully deployed in Afghanistan ( news - web sites) since the Sept. 11 airliner attacks. Such forces would be authorized to kill the Iraqi president if they were acting in self-defense.
The Post said CIA Director George Tenet had told Bush and his Cabinet that the covert program alone -- without military action or diplomatic and economic pressure -- had only about a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of succeeding.
One source told the newspaper the CIA covert action should be viewed largely as "preparatory" to a military strike so the agency can identify targets, intensify intelligence gathering on the ground in Iraq, and build relations with alternative future leaders and groups if Saddam is ousted.
"I don't know if we can succeed or not," McCain said. "But my argument is, why not try it?"
A CIA spokesman declined to comment, the Post said.
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