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Subtle shift on 'regime change'?

For Bush, the heavily used phrase may have taken on shades of meaning beyond merely the ouster of Hussein.

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For months, whenever President Bush spoke of "regime change" in Iraq, the assumption was he meant Saddam Hussein had to go.

Now, Mr. Bush is signaling he could accept a world where Mr. Hussein – though a fully disarmed Hussein – remains the man in charge in Iraq.

Just as the president shifted in the months after 9/11 from a focus on Osama bin Laden to saying the chief enemy was not one man but international terrorism, he seems to be saying now that the aim is not removing one man but disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

The new stance, hinted at in a buried line in Bush's speech Monday, suggests a retreat from the ambitious – and for some critics worrisome – goals that the president had previously set out for Iraq, including democracy and full respect for human rights. Indeed, for both domestic and foreign skeptics, a disarmed Iraq is one thing, but an Iraq remade in America's image is quite another.

That may explain why Bush, after laying out the demanding steps that Iraq must take to disarm and to divorce itself from terrorism, added: "These steps would also change the nature of the Iraq regime itself. America hopes the regime will make that choice."

In part, the president's subtle backoff from the "Saddam must go" line may be a tactical move to improve prospects for tough action on Iraq, both in the US Congress and the United Nations Security Council. Yet even if it is a tactical move, the new stance appears to give some additional time to administration forces favoring international action and war only as a last resort.

It wasn't just happenstance that Bush's change of tack came a few days after Secretary of State Colin Powell, considered the administration's "chief dove," declared that "regime change" – US policy on Iraq since the Clinton administration – does not necessarily mean that Hussein would have to be deposed.

"This was a Powell-esque softening of the previous position, perhaps to let those around Saddam know how a war could be avoided, but certainly another audience was the UN Security Council," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The thinking was undoubtedly that this will make it easier to garner support for a new weapons-inspections resolution there."

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