U.S. races France for votes
UNITED NATIONS -- The United States and France were locked in a last-minute race Sunday for Security Council votes that could make or break international support for war in Iraq.
As Washington worked the phones, the French foreign minister headed to Africa to try to persuade undecided council members to reject a U.S.-backed resolution that would authorize war in Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not disarm by March 17.
U.S. diplomats said the United States would announce today that it would seek a council vote for Tuesday or Wednesday, but noted they might need a little more time.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte told the council to be ready to cast their votes by Tuesday -- leaving Washington with less than 48 hours Sunday to round up enough support.
President Bush has said the United States is prepared to forcefully disarm Iraq without Security Council approval. But U.N. support would give the war international legitimacy and guarantee that members of the organization share in the costs of rebuilding Iraq.
Much could change before the council meets this afternoon.
Key swing voters, such as Mexico and Pakistan, which want to come on board with the United States, are asking for a few extra days to negotiate a deadline beyond the March 17 date proposed by Washington.
But the United States clearly was ready to move forward.
"We're delayed out and we're definitely moving forward with a vote this week," said Richard Grenell of the U.S. mission at the United Nations.
The U.S. resolution, backed by Britain and Spain, needs nine votes to pass. But even if Washington can muster the support, it must prevent France, Russia or China from vetoing. While Paris has threatened a veto, Moscow and Beijing have been more cautious.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday there was a strong chance the United States could get nine or even 10 votes, adding that most of the undecideds were making up their minds over the weekend.
He spoke amid indications that Cameroon, a former French colony, was throwing its support behind the resolution. U.S. diplomats said they were concentrating on council members Angola, Guinea and Chile. The foreign minister of Guinea will visit administration officials this week in Washington.
Powell said he was leading intensive efforts over the weekend to win over several other governments, hoping to muster the nine votes.
National security adviser Condeleezza Rice, when asked whether the administration was trying to entice potential backers with promises of financial aid, said, "We're talking to people about their interests."
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Powell said it would be "unfortunate if France decided to veto," although he would not be surprised.
"Even though France has been a friend of ours for many years, will be a friend in the future, I think it will have a serious effect on bilateral relations, at least in the short term," he said.
But the French, who are leading the antiwar camp in a very divided Security Council, mounted a last-ditch diplomatic bid Sunday to defeat the resolution.
If it passes, war would be automatic anytime after March 17 unless Hussein comes up with a move dramatic enough to convince most of the council that Iraq has fully disarmed -- a scenario deemed highly unlikely by most diplomats.
Still, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin headed Sunday to the capitals of the three African council members -- Angola, Cameroon and Guinea.
"France will not allow a resolution to pass that authorizes the automatic use of force," de Villepin said.
Earlier Sunday, France won key support from Germany for a proposed Security Council summit on Iraq, although the idea was rejected by the United States.
France, Germany, Russia and China have said weapons inspections are working and have pointed to generally upbeat assessments from the inspectors.
But the United States, along with its closest ally, Britain, have declared the inspections a failure because of Iraq's lack of cooperation and compliance with more than a decade of Security Council resolutions demanding its disarmament.
China, whose trade relationship with Washington is crucial to its economy, has refused to say specifically it would veto the U.S.-British deadline proposal.
Russia, which has backed France, appeared less certain Sunday, with officials stressing Moscow's desire for continued good relations with Washington. Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said unilateral military action against Iraq would harm the international community, but he hinted at a possible compromise.
"We are striving to find a common language with the United States, England and other countries," Fedotov told Russia's NTV network. "We have never tried to inflame the conflict."
Bush has spoken in recent days with Russian President Vladimir Putin and was expected to make additional calls to foreign leaders today seeking their support. Putin also spoke with French leader Jacques Chirac Sunday.
In Iraq, the country's chief liaison to the inspectors, Maj. Gen. Hossam Mohamed Amin, said Sunday he is convinced the United States has decided to go to war but that Iraq's cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors would strengthen opposition on the Security Council to U.S. war plans.
Amin belittled a U.S. and British proposal to give Hussein a March 17 ultimatum to disarm, saying Baghdad was trying to meet U.N. inspectors' demands.
"We are working hard to meet our obligations and to overcome any obstacles," he said. "Whether that takes a week, 10 days, or a month, we are doing everything we can. We are not interested in dates and times."
Amin ticked off examples of Iraqi cooperation, saying Baghdad has proven it has no nuclear weapons and will soon prove it has rid itself of biological and chemical weaponry.
"We hope that this will guide (U.N. inspectors) to reach the position that Iraq is rid completely of weapons of mass destruction and to recommend to the Security Council the lifting of the unfair sanctions imposed on the courageous Iraqi people," he said.
He said Iraq received on Sunday a list of outstanding issues from chief inspector Hans Blix, and added Iraq might invite Blix to Baghdad on March 17. He gave no details.
Amin said President Bush appears to have made up his mind to go ahead with war despite Iraq's disarmament progress.
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