On the eve of a U.N. session that may determine whether the United States goes to war with many allies or a few, President Bush on Thursday challenged the United Nations to "rise to its responsibilities" to confront Iraq.
Speaking to sailors and other naval personnel here, Bush enumerated the countries and groups that have expressed support for military action against Iraq, and dared the U.N. Security Council to authorize military force or become an "ineffective, irrelevant debating society."
"I'm optimistic that free nations will show backbone and courage in the face of true threats to peace and freedom," Bush said.
"The decision is this for the United Nations: When you say something, does it mean anything? You've got to decide: If you lay down a resolution, does it mean anything?"
Bush's challenge was the latest in a series of administration jabs at the United Nations and at reluctant allies ahead of a pivotal presentation by the U.N.'s top weapons experts at the Security Council today.
Increasingly, the administration has portrayed efforts by France, Germany and Russia to block war as weakening both the United Nations and NATO. U.S. officials hope that their pressure, combined with what they hope will be a tough report from the weapons inspectors, will win a divided Security Council over to their view that the next step should be military action rather than more inspections.
France and Germany have been at the forefront of an effort to counter the U.S. move to war, arguing that between inaction and war lies a third option -- "robust" inspections. This week, France has been circulating an unofficial proposal at the Security Council for a stronger and more sustained inspection effort.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sought Thursday to strengthen Bush's arguments by citing evidence from the United Nations that Iraq has broken U.N. rules by developing missiles that exceed a range of 94 miles.
"This is a serious matter," Powell told the House Budget Committee in Washington. "It shows Iraqi noncompliance."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking in London earlier, said that if the reports on the missiles are true, they would be "very serious, because it would be not just a failure to declare and disclose information but a breach of Resolution 1441" that authorized the inspections in November.
Washington may seek to introduce a new resolution on military action as early as Saturday if it appears that the inspectors' report has swayed council members. But U.S. officials said they believe that a resolution is more likely to be introduced next week at the earliest.
As diplomatic efforts continued, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, met with senior White House and defense officials Thursday to finalize military plans, a spokesman said.
"From finalizing military plans to presenting options, everything Gen. Franks is doing right now is in support of ongoing diplomatic efforts," Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson said.
Also Thursday, Pentagon officials for the first time confirmed the frequently reported presence of Special Forces troops in parts of Iraq. While describing their numbers as small, a defense official said the elite troops have been moving in and out of the country for weeks, identifying targets and making contact with possible defectors from Iraqi military units.
"We're not the only U.S. government agency with people in there," a defense official added, apparently referring to CIA operatives who are known to be active in Iraq.
It remained unclear where in Iraq the Special Forces troops are active besides the north, where Kurds friendly to the United States control key territory. The defense official would not confirm or deny the presence of soldiers in southern Iraq.
In his speech to the troops Thursday, Bush listed allies that he said have already rallied to the U.S. position -- an "overwhelming majority" of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and "every nation of the Gulf Cooperation Council."
He expressed optimism that the Security Council will adopt the U.S. position.
"See, I believe when it's all said and done, free nations will not allow the United Nations to fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society," Bush said.
A senior U.S. official said there was little doubt that today's progress report from Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, would again show stubborn Iraqi resistance to disarmament.
"Blix is going to report that he doesn't have the genuine cooperation of the Iraqis," he said, "and then the council's going to have to decide whether they want to be with us or not."
The U.S. official dismissed arguments that Iraq, like a criminal defendant, should be presumed innocent and then given a full opportunity to defend itself. He asserted that because Iraq has been violating U.N. resolutions since 1991, "this isn't a trial -- it's a parole hearing. It's a clemency hearing."
In an interview with the Reuters news agency en route to New York on Thursday, ElBaradei said he believes that "Iraq still has a chance to exonerate itself, but time is critical. They can't afford but to have 100% cooperation."
The U.N. session is drawing a heavy lineup of senior diplomats, including foreign ministers Dominique de Villepin of France, Igor S. Ivanov of Russia, Tang Jiaxuan of China and Joschka Fischer of Germany. After the ministers announced their plans, Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also decided to attend.
The presence of the foreign ministers elevates the profile of the meeting and provides an opportunity for serious strategizing. After they leave, however, it is up to the countries' ambassadors to do the detailed diplomacy.
Appearing before Congress on Thursday, top administration officials fielded questions challenging plans for any Iraq campaign and its aftermath.
Powell, quizzed on the costs of rebuilding Iraq, said he could provide no estimate. But he said he believes that Iraq would be able to recover more quickly than Afghanistan because of its larger middle class, oil wealth and effective government bureaucracy.
"I would hope that it would be a short conflict and it would be aimed at the leadership, not the society," he said.
Powell said a U.S. military officer would oversee Iraq immediately after the war. Power would then be turned over to a prominent American or international figure, and then, before too long, to Iraqis, he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also declined to predict to lawmakers the cost of a campaign but contended the war would cost "a heck of a lot less than 9/11 cost, and a heck of a lot less than a chemical or biological 9/11." Rumsfeld refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Iraq, but he noted that they haven't been used since World War II. "Those weapons have not been fired in anger since 1945," he said.
He said that fact "ought to say something about the threshold for their use."
In Brussels on Thursday, after three days of wrangling, NATO canceled a meeting about a U.S. request to begin planning military aid for Turkey if there is war with Iraq.
Germany, France and Belgium have blocked such a move, insisting that it would signal the alliance was backing war against Iraq and thus increase the likelihood of war.
Germany unexpectedly showed signs of compromise Thursday, saying NATO would resolve the dispute over Turkey by Saturday, after the latest U.N. session.
At the Mayport naval station, the president was joined by his brother Jeb, the Florida governor. Mayport is the home port of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, which returned in August from the north Arabian Sea where it participated in operations in and around Afghanistan.
None of the ships in port has orders to deploy to Iraq, but the sailors and other personnel say they expect it's just a matter of time.
Elliott Torres, an information specialist with 24 years in the Navy, said many of the more senior personnel who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War feel that the confrontation with Iraq and President Saddam Hussein has dragged on too long.
"We've been playing this game long enough," Torres said. "Now that we have someone who wants to take care of business, I think we should. Enough is enough. And if my country says it's enough, I'm ready to go."
Reynolds reported from Florida and Richter from Washington. Janet Stobart in The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.
Coverage of U.N.
- From Associated Press
Weapons inspectors present a new report on Iraq to the Security Council beginning at 7:15 a.m. PST today. Most major broadcast networks and at least two cable channels have announced plans for some live coverage starting at 7. In addition, streaming video of the report will be available at www.latimes.com.