Iraq vote waits as support wanes
UNITED NATIONS -- President Bush's urgent phone campaign to world leaders, seeking their support for a tough deadline on Iraq, came up short Monday -- forcing a delay of the Security Council's vote and opening the doors to a possible compromise to give Saddam Hussein more time.
The United States had hoped to present the resolution to the council today, setting a March 17 deadline for Iraqi disarmament or war. But the vote was put on hold when it became evident that America and its allies had not won the nine votes they needed for a majority.
But even nine votes wouldn't be enough. French President Jacques Chirac said his country would veto any resolution. The Russians also said they would vote against the proposal as it was worded.
The United States and Britain said they were willing to negotiate the deadline and changes to the resolution.
During a closed-door council session late Monday, British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock suggested a two-phase approach to the resolution, in which Saddam Hussein would have 10 days to make a "strategic decision," to disarm, council diplomats said.
The inspectors would then have a brief window to verify whether Iraq was carrying out a set of tests -- or "benchmarks," as they are called -- before the decision to wage war was made. The council was planning to hold an open debate today.
Some of the uncommitted countries were talking about delaying the deadline by as much as a month, until April 17 -- though it was clear that such a proposal stood no chance with the United States, as hundreds of thousands of American soldiers await their orders in the Persian Gulf.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said a vote on the resolution would not come today. He said consultations were ongoing and a vote could come anytime later in the week.
"The vote will be the day we get nine or 10 votes, and I think we're getting close," said Spanish Ambassador Inocencio Arias, whose country is co-sponsoring the resolution with the United States and Britain.
But on the surface, at least, Monday was not a good day for the coalition's efforts.
Pakistan's prime minister said for the first time publicly that his country, a key swing vote, wouldn't support war. And Chile, another vote that Washington is after, suggested it is not prepared to embrace the resolution without changes.
The resolution, which authorizes war anytime after March 17 unless Iraq proves before then that it has disarmed, requires nine "yes" votes. Approval also requires that France, Russia and China abstain or vote in favor.
The United States is assured the support of Britain, Spain and Bulgaria, with Cameroon and Mexico leaning heavily toward the U.S. position.
But with Germany, Syria and Pakistan preparing abstentions or "no" votes, Washington is left trying to canvass the support of Chile, Angola and Guinea.
Noting the pressure in his country and at the United Nations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was open to a compromise.
"We are talking to all the other countries about how we ensure that we can make a proper judgment about whether Saddam is cooperating or not," he said.
One example, Blair said, would be whether Iraq was allowing inspectors to interview scientists outside the country.
Diplomats said the benchmarks could be presented in the form of a presidential statement -- a diplomatic text that everyone in the council could sign on to whether they supported the resolution or not.
The council was briefly united in November when it passed Resolution 1441, creating new powers for weapons inspectors and warning Iraq to accept a final opportunity to disarm or face serious consequences.
Also Monday, the White House accused chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix of downplaying the discovery of outlawed rocket warhead cluster bombs and unmanned aerial drones in Iraq that allegedly could spew deadly poison gas or germs on American troops.
The United States and Britain say it is more proof of Iraq's failure to disarm.
"It was information that was available last week and should be of concern to everyone," Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
Fleischer accused Blix of tucking the only mention of inspectors' discovery of the two undeclared Iraqi weapons in a little-noticed, 200-page appendix added late Friday night to an extensive written report handed to the U.N. Security Council earlier on Friday.
Blix did not mention the two weapons in his oral report to the U.N. Security Council on Friday.
Powell said the U.N. weapons inspectors' discoveries showed Baghdad "has not really changed its strategic intent" to defy U.N. disarmament demands and retain banned weapons.
Among the suspect weapons identified by inspectors were imported South African rocket warheads allegedly reconfigured by Iraqi authorities to disperse exploding chemical or biological cluster bombs the size of soccer balls. The New York Times reported that U.S. officials suspect Iraq might have produced 50 to 75 of the chemical warheads for ballistic missiles and that U.N. weapons inspectors have been unable to confirm their destruction.
The unmanned aerial drones included at least one with a wingspan of 24 feet and a suspected range of more than 93 miles built from modified auxiliary fuel tanks taken from Iraqi-owned, Czech-built L-29 turbojet trainers. Fleischer said U.N. weapons inspectors in the 1990s found that similar drones had been flight-tested with modified tanks to "spray simulated anthrax."
On Monday, Blix told the council the drone didn't constitute a "smoking gun."
Blix said Iraq should have included the drone in its weapons declaration of December but there is no indication the unmanned vehicle was illegal.
If the new resolution is defeated, Bush and Blair have said they would be prepared to go to war with a coalition of willing nations. But U.N. support would give the war international legitimacy and guarantee that members of the organization share the costs of rebuilding Iraq.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking in the Netherlands, said: "If the United States and others would go outside the council and take military action, it will not be in conformity with the charter."
"The legitimacy and support of any such action will be seriously impaired," he said.
But the White House argued the opposite Monday, saying a lack of support would hurt U.N. credibility.
If the United Nations fails to act, Fleischer said, "that means the United Nations will not be the international body that disarms Saddam Hussein. Another international body will disarm Saddam Hussein. So this will remain an international action, it's just the United Nations will have chosen to put itself on the sidelines."
But France and Russia seemed undeterred, saying Monday they would oppose the U.S.-backed resolution.
"No matter what the circumstances, France will vote 'no,' " Chirac said in a televised interview in France Monday. "There is no cause for war to achieve the objective that we fixed -- the disarmament of Iraq.
His foreign minister was meeting top Angolan officials Monday at the start of a quick trip to lobby the undecided African members of the council.
In Moscow, Russia's foreign minister said: "Russia will vote against this resolution."
Facing the veto threats, Bush made a round of phone calls to eight world leaders trying to salvage the resolution. Among those who received calls was Chinese President Jiang Zemin who told Bush that weapons inspections should continue and that the standoff should be settled peacefully, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Meanwhile, Americans are growing impatient with the United Nations and 55 percent say they would support military action against Iraq even if the Security Council refuses to support an invasion, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
But 52 percent of respondents say inspectors should be given more time to search for evidence of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons on the ground in Iraq.
Still, that number has dropped over the past month, and there has been an increase in the number of Americans who say the United States has done enough to find a diplomatic solution.
The nationwide telephone poll of 1,010 adults was conducted from Friday night through Sunday night. It had a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points.
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