WASHINGTON -- The outlines of a possible compromise on Iraq began to take shape Thursday, as the United States and Britain seriously considered allowing U.N. weapons inspections to continue for several weeks in hopes of making the case with skeptical allies and public opinion.
The two allies came to no formal conclusions during talks between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. But both deliberated the option of giving the arms monitors extra time in exchange for assurances from allies that inspections won’t drag on indefinitely, according to U.S. and British officials.
“You need space to show that the policy is working and to convince public opinion that you have let this process take its course. There’s no need to go to war in February, for example,” said a British official who requested anonymity.
Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also moved to shore up support on Capitol Hill, where some key senators have complained that the Bush administration has failed to make a case for war. Behind closed doors, the pair acknowledged the administration’s concern over allied opposition to military intervention in Iraq, made most vocally this week by France and Germany.
Powell and Rumsfeld indicated that the administration is prepared to let the U.N. teams continue their work “a little longer,” maybe a month or so, according to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
In New York, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz charged that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is blocking cooperation by Iraqi scientists under threat of death. “We know from multiple sources that Saddam has ordered that any scientists who cooperate during interviews will be killed, as well as their families,” he said in a speech outlining the scope of Iraq’s noncompliance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Behind the scenes, the administration is scrambling to deflect the mounting international pressure.
“We came slowly to the realization that this is a real crisis. A lot of people thought it could be managed and the Europeans brought along,” said a well-placed U.S. official who requested anonymity.
The aggressive French and German campaign to mobilize support against war and some “diplomatic but direct” language from Britain has now convinced many, but not all, of the principal administration players of the need to look for middle ground, he added.
In a spate of speeches and background briefings with senior U.S. officials this week, the administration has worked hard to make its case that there is evidence that Iraq is not complying with inspections, and that no “smoking gun” is needed.
Washington has been deeply frustrated that the barometer of cooperation has been whether or not the U.N. teams find hidden nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or ballistic missiles -- and not that Hussein voluntarily turn over known outstanding items.
Serving as the bridge between the United States and Britain’s European neighbors, London is particularly concerned with closing the growing chasm over what to do next in Iraq, British officials said.
Britain, which has now committed one-quarter of its standing army to the Persian Gulf region, shares the U.S. conviction that Iraq is guilty of violating its promise to disarm, and London is prepared to stand with Washington if the United Nations does not, according to British and White House officials.
But London also is pressing for credible evidence of one of three circumstances, British officials say, to justify military intervention: a “smoking gun” in the form of concealed weapons; evidence that Hussein is lying; or tangible proof that Baghdad is blocking the inspections process.
While some senior U.S. and British officials insisted that London is not pressuring Washington to prolong inspections indefinitely, Prime Minister Tony Blair, due here for talks next Friday, is likely to urge President Bush to allow U.N. teams time to show that Hussein is not complying.
“We need something more decisive than this general feeling that Iraq is not really cooperating,” one senior British official said. “From our point of view, we don’t have enough to go to war at this point -- we will prefer to wait until the circumstances are more favorable to broader support.”
Under growing pressure from allies and Iraq’s neighbors, the United States engaged in heavy diplomacy Thursday to prevent a diplomatic face-off over Baghdad at the United Nations next week, with the White House acknowledging that some of America’s closest allies may end up on the sidelines of any U.S. military action.
“It is their prerogative, if they choose, to be on the sideline,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Thursday.
Russia joined the diplomatic skirmishing Thursday when President Vladimir V. Putin told Bush during a telephone call initiated by Moscow that there are no grounds yet to use force against Hussein.
“The efforts of the international community must be directed now at helping international inspectors perform their mission,” Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said at a news conference in Athens. “There are no grounds at the moment to use military force against Iraq.
“We would like to hope that no one would take any unilateral action and bypass the U.N. Security Council,” Ivanov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
With U.N. inspectors’ assessment of Iraq’s cooperation due Monday, four of the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council are now campaigning hard for continued inspections and diplomacy, despite what chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has characterized as Baghdad’s failure so far to fully cooperate with the inspections.
Even Britain said Thursday that it would prefer a second U.N. resolution on the use of force to disarm Iraq. Powell said another resolution is still “an open question.”
At the same time, however, Britain sided with the United States in plotting strategy to pressure the Security Council to face both the realities and consequences of inaction.
“To say, ‘Never mind, I’ll walk away from this problem or ignore it or allow it to be strung out indefinitely without no end,’ I think, would be a defeat for the international community and a serious defeat for the United Nations,” Powell said after his talks with Straw.
No decisions on next steps will be made, however, until after Blix makes his first mandated report 60 days after inspections resumed Nov. 27 under a unanimous Security Council resolution.
“Both sides are interested in seeing what happens Monday before they talk again and make any decisions,” the well-placed U.S. official said. “None of this is going to get any clearer until then.”
In the meantime, the United States is now scrambling to influence Blix and also the other Security Council members -- and redefine the debate that will follow his report.
At a closed-door meeting in New York, a senior State Department official told Blix on Thursday that his job is not to find a “needle in a haystack” but for Iraq to hand over its needles to the United Nations, according to U.N. diplomats.
The U.S.-led effort to confront Hussein got a boost Thursday from a summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Turkey. The six states, also including Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, called on Baghdad to be “more active” in disarming “in full conformity” with U.N. resolutions so the region is not put through yet another war.
“We therefore solemnly call on the Iraqi leadership to move irreversibly and sincerely toward assuming their responsibilities in restoring peace and stability in the region,” a communique said.
Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein and Janet Hook in Washington, Maggie Farley in New York and David Holley in Moscow contributed to this report.