The United States launched what it called "the final phase" of its Iraq diplomacy Wednesday, as President Bush and his top officials addressed the U.N. Security Council, Congress and the American people to rally support for a war against Saddam Hussein -- with mixed results.
A day after Bush put the Security Council on notice that the U.S. is ready to go to war, with or without the United Nations, the majority of the council called for continued diplomacy. In an all-day meeting with the U.N.'s chief weapons inspectors, 11 of the 15 council members said inspectors should be allowed to keep working until there is undeniable evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
But U.S. diplomats warned that the "situation is urgent" and that the council must make a decision soon on whether to use force to disarm Iraq.
"The time for diplomatic action is narrowing; the diplomatic window is closing," said the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John D. Negroponte. "What you're going to see unfolding in the next several days is going to be a period of intense diplomatic activity, not only here in the council, but across the oceans, between ministers and between our presidents."
Bush, building on his State of the Union message that his patience with both the U.N. process and the Iraqi president is nearly gone, told supporters in Michigan on Wednesday: "We've got to deal with him before it's too late."
While expressing his hope for a peaceful resolution, Bush said: "I've got to tell you something. I've thought long and hard about this. The risks of doing nothing, the risks of assuming the best from Saddam Hussein -- it's just not a risk worth taking."
Bush said that trying to contain Iraq no longer made sense in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, asserting that Hussein has links to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda that are willing to make the U.S. a battleground.
"What's changed for America ... is that there's now a shadowy terrorist network which he could use as a forward army, attacking his worst enemy and never leave a fingerprint behind, with deadly, deadly weapons. And that's what's changed," he said.
He didn't offer proof of his assertion of a connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda, although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to "connect the dots" Wednesday during a Security Council briefing that also will try to show that Iraq has systematically concealed weapons of mass destruction.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said diplomacy was in its "final phase."
Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave House members a closed-door preview of some of the evidence Wednesday, including freshly declassified intelligence. But some lawmakers were not convinced that it clinched the administration's case that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction or is supporting other terrorist groups.
Rep. Thomas Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, said, "I didn't hear anything new."
But Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said, "I became more convinced after this meeting" of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Although the response overseas to Bush's State of the Union speech ranged from caution among politicians to hostility on the streets Wednesday, the U.S. offer to reveal new intelligence could open a crack in the resistance from Paris and Moscow.
"I welcome this American decision," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, a chief strategist in the diplomatic duel with Washington, said in Paris. "We will examine this American information and we will give our own information. We'll put it all together and examine the situation. The responsibility of the international community is immense. It is a question of war and peace."
Powell's presentation next week of the intelligence could be a pivotal moment for nations to decide whether to join the U.S. in what appears to be its increasingly inevitable march to military action.
"Certainly, the stakes are higher," said the Pakistani ambassador to the U.N., Munir Akram, saying the coming weeks will be extremely important in determining what the future role of the inspectors -- and the council -- will be.
"We welcome Secretary Powell's offer to show us more evidence," Akram said. "It's what we have been asking for all along. We hope that it's something the inspectors can verify or act on."
Powell's presentation will be attended by foreign ministers from key nations Britain, France and Germany -- and perhaps more. Powell promised to put forward "information and evidence" to fill in some of the gaps in the inspections reports given Monday and to present more information about links between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
"Some of it will be an expansion of information that has already been seen," Powell said. "Some of it is information that has been given to inspectors, and some of it will be new information that were really not relevant to the inspectors' work, but relevant to making the case with respect to the Hussein regime's possession of weapons of mass destruction."
Britain is backing the U.S. push toward immediate action, along with Bulgaria and Spain. France, Germany, Russia and Syria are the most vocal opponents of military action, and China, Mexico, Chile, Guinea, Cameroon, Pakistan and Angola agree military force is justifiable only after inspectors' efforts have been exhausted or blocked.
"The majority of the council thinks we should continue inspections," French Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said. "This is what they think today, and I think it is important to say so."
And even if Powell shows that Iraq is concealing weapons programs, some diplomats say that the council should try first for peaceful disarmament rather than punitive military action.
"If it is evidence that proves beyond a doubt the degree of danger that Iraq poses, then we must still consider other ways that danger can be averted," Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser said. "We want first of all for the inspectors to try to disarm them."
It is just such a response that has prompted the U.S. to try to force a quick decision, U.S. officials said. Other council diplomats said that there is discussion of an "ultimatum resolution," which would set out specific requirements for Iraq to meet within a matter of days or a few weeks. Baghdad's failure would launch the use of force.
Powell spoke Wednesday of another way to resolve the Iraqi standoff: allowing Hussein to flee the country. The secretary of State has discussed the option generally before, but on Wednesday he offered the first suggestion that the United States may take an active role in arranging exile for the Iraqi leader.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, Powell said that "if Saddam were to leave the country and take some of his family members with him, and others in the leading elite who have been responsible for so much trouble during the course of his regime, we would, I'm sure, try to help find a place for them to go."
"And so that certainly would be one way to avoid war," he said.
But Powell declined to discuss whether the United States would favor granting Hussein immunity. "I think it's not for the United States alone to offer such protection -- I mean, it would have to be a broader forum that would look at such a question," he said, adding that it was "so hypothetical" that it was "not terribly relevant at the moment."
Washington received unexpected support Wednesday from a statement signed by eight European leaders saying that Europe should stand with the U.S. on Iraq. The letter was signed by the leaders of Spain, Britain, Italy, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Portugal. The communique appeared in the Journal and European newspapers today.
"We must remain united in insisting that [Hussein's] regime be disarmed," it said. The Security Council must ensure full compliance with the resolution it passed unanimously in November demanding Iraq's disarmament or it "will lose its credibility and world peace will suffer as a result."
Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Michigan, Sebastian Rotella in Paris and James Gerstenzang and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.