WASHINGTON - While France and Russia each threatened to veto a United Nations resolution authorizing war against Iraq, the Bush administration agreed yesterday to ease the terms of its ultimatum to Baghdad in a bid to win Security Council backing for military action.
In a day of frantic diplomacy, the administration seemed increasingly resigned to having to go to war without U.N. approval. It portrayed its likely invasion of Iraq as a "moral" mission that would be conducted by "another international body" - "a coalition of the willing."
U.S. officials said the Bush administration might agree to a date later than March 17 for President Saddam Hussein to show full compliance with U.N. demands that Iraq disarm, as well as to "benchmarks" specifying the disarmament steps Iraq would have to achieve by certain dates.
The warnings by France's president and Russia's foreign minister - the first time those countries had explicitly threatened a Security Council veto - suggested a redrawing of the international map for the first time since the Cold War.
In a televised interview, French President Jacques Chirac said his country would vote against any resolution that contains an ultimatum leading to war, "no matter what the circumstances." Chirac made clear that in doing so, France would be exercising "the right of veto."
Separately, Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, said that if the current U.S.-backed ultimatum is put to a vote, "Russia will vote against this resolution," the Interfax news agency reported.
The statements came three days after the United States and Britain proposed a revised U.N. resolution with a March 17 deadline for Iraq to disarm.
That resolution, though, faces not only the prospect of a veto but the likelihood that it would not win the needed nine votes on the 15-member council. As a result, the Bush administration bowed to pressure from Britain and agreed to compromise on the new resolution.
The new flexibility was a concession to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who faces a possible revolt within his Labor Party, and even within his Cabinet, if Britain joins the United States in a war against Iraq that is not approved by the United Nations.
Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, said his country is considering "a list of defined tests" for Iraqi compliance - an idea that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had dismissed as recently as Friday.
British diplomats said they hope the change, and a later deadline for Iraqi compliance, will help win votes among the five publicly undecided nations on the Security Council - Chile, Mexico, Angola, Cameroon and Guinea.
Yesterday, Pakistan's prime minister said publicly for the first time that his country, a key swing vote on the council, would not support an invasion of Iraq.
The United States had said that it would push for a vote as early as today. But as the search for votes went on, the Bush administration agreed to delay the vote at least until Thursday.
The council has scheduled an open meeting on Iraq today and tomorrow. Recent meetings have produced speeches critical of the United States.
Even as the United States signaled a willingness to compromise, anxiety pervaded the Security Council that President Bush would not tolerate much more negotiation before launching an attack on Iraq.
"The U.S. patience is wearing thin, if not actively running out," a council diplomat said.
Bush phoned a number of world leaders, reaching out beyond the Security Council to nations that might wield influence with wavering members.
Powell met with the foreign minister of Guinea, the presiding nation in the Security Council. Intensive diplomacy focused on Guinea and the two other small African nations on the council - Angola and Cameroon - with Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin of France, the leading opponent of the U.S. push for war, visiting all three nations.
While easing the terms of its latest resolution, the White House signaled its frustration with the Security Council, raising anew its threat to consider the United Nations irrelevant to the handling of major international crises.
The rhetoric from the White House underscored the widening rift between the United States and the United Nations.
"If the United Nations fails to act," Fleischer said, "another international body will disarm Saddam Hussein."
In opinion polls, many Americans have expressed deep reservations about going to war without substantial international support. To try to quell such concerns, White House aides have argued that even without U.N. backing, the United States could amass enough support from other nations for the war to be considered "multilateral."
Fleischer stopped short of questioning the morality of countries that do not support the United States, but said: "In the event that hostilities ensue and the Iraqi people are freed from the cloak of a brutal dictatorship that tortures, that kills, people of Iraq will know who to thank. That will be a moral issue. That will be a moral matter."
The White House spokesman said the Security Council, if it avoids disarming Hussein, would have "failed to act once again" in an area of the world where "humanity is suffering from ethnic cleansing, is suffering from mass killings and, in the case of Iraq, suffering from the possibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction."
The White House warnings came amid heightened attention to suspected nuclear weapons programs under way in North Korea and Iran. In Iran, the process of making fuel for nuclear weapons is believed to be more advanced than the United States or international monitors had previously thought.
The White House asserted that a Security Council vote against Bush's position might mean a missed opportunity to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in such countries. Those nations, Fleischer warned, might interpret a decision not to disarm Iraq as a sign of international weakness.
The fact that North Korea and Iran continue to pursue nuclear weapons programs, Fleischer said, explains in part "why it is so important for the United Nations to be effective against Iraq."
The Bush administration sought to highlight new findings by U.N. weapons inspectors that Iraq had developed unmanned aircraft capable of dispensing chemical weapons - a finding that Powell said "should be of concern to everybody."
Hans Blix, one of the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, had mentioned the drones during an oral report to the Security Council on Friday. But Bush administration officials were disappointed that Blix did not note them as an example of Iraqi deception.
U.S. diplomats pressed Blix during a closed Security Council meeting yesterday to acknowledge that the drones should have been included in Iraq's weapons declaration Dec. 7.
"This and other information shows Iraq has not changed," Powell said.