Attempting to avert an acrimonious Security Council showdown today, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw offered Thursday to amend a draft resolution in a direct bid to win the support of council members hesitant to endorse the use of force against Iraq.
"We are ready to discuss the wording of that resolution and take on board any constructive suggestions of how the process on that draft resolution can be improved," Straw told a news conference at U.N. headquarters. "There is certainly the possibility of an amendment, and that's what we're looking at."
Facing strong opposition from France, Russia and China -- nations that wield veto power -- Britain and the U.S. are now considering giving Iraq a "little bit more time" -- possibly days but not more than two weeks -- to join the U.N. disarmament effort, U.S. and British officials said Thursday. They are also discussing an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to comply or leave Baghdad, diplomats said.
"It is worth straining every sinew, every nerve to bridge the gap both for the short term and the long term," said a British official. "We will need to meet at the U.N. again the day after [war] -- for help with reconstruction and humanitarian problems and funding."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Straw stepped up their diplomatic efforts Thursday night. They met together, then Powell spoke with Sheik Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thani, Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer, the foreign ministers of, respectively, Qatar, France and Germany.
Straw talked with Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, then once more with Powell and Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio. They will continue private meetings today with the other nine foreign ministers who have come to hear a long-awaited update by Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the U.N.'s nuclear inspections of Iraq, on Baghdad's cooperation.
"They had good, extensive discussions on Iraq's refusal to disarm and the council's responsibility to deal with this danger," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of Powell's meetings. He said that new ideas were discussed, including possible changes in the text, but emphasized that the resolution's core demands would not change. "We're seeking a resolution that can obtain maximum support while making clear that the council stands by the requirement to disarm immediately."
France, Russia, Germany and other council members have proposed presenting Iraq with a specific list of the most important disarmament tasks, or "benchmarks," perhaps paired with a deadline. American officials are considering a separate set of demands that could include allowing all Iraqi scientists who have worked on weapons programs to leave the country for private interviews with inspectors, diplomats said.
But both Washington and London are concerned that a list of benchmarks would only raise more problems and prolong negotiations about whether Iraq had met the requirements. Officials say the list may reflect only part of the deadly arsenal they believe Baghdad is concealing, and thus allow Hussein to get away with only partial compliance with the demand to eliminate Iraq's entire arsenal of banned weapons.
"It'll only whittle down the demands from what was a unanimous U.N. agreement on full disarmament," a U.S. official said. "We can't accept the idea that Saddam will only have to destroy a few canisters of VX, one of the most lethal chemical weapons."
Under mounting domestic pressure, Britain initiated the idea of a compromise, a concept not widely welcomed in some Washington quarters.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair made the request not only because of intensifying public and political demands for U.N. approval before resorting to force against Iraq but also for legal cover. Matrix Chambers, the law firm where Blair's wife Cherie practices, published a finding this week that argued Resolution 1441 does not give clear authorization for the use of force. Peter Goldsmith, Britain's attorney general and a close Blair confidant, has not made his own views public but hinted that Britain may need explicit approval in a second resolution to ensure its legality.
But most of all, diplomats believe that the significant benefits of winning the council's backing -- and maintaining the U.N.'s integrity -- are within reach.
"We still think we can get nine votes, but the issue is whether we get it through arm-twisting or whether we get it because of sustained agreement that will allow a public relations victory for all parties," a British official said.
The prospects for council unity dropped precipitously Wednesday when the French, Russian and German foreign ministers gathered in Paris to announce their opposition to a resolution authorizing military action. On Thursday, China joined the opposition, saying a new resolution is "absolutely unnecessary."
In a reversal of the usual U.N. strategy of winning the support of the veto-holding members, then getting the 10 rotating members to follow, U.S. and British diplomats have been focusing first on the concerns of the nonpermanent members. The strategy is to line up nine or more votes, and then dare the permanent members to torpedo the will of the majority, diplomats said.
But both U.S. and British officials have carefully reserved the right to act without the U.N.'s blessing. Blair, when asked by a young German woman on an MTV special program if Britain would attack Iraq without U.N. approval, said it would if he thought countries were "applying the vetoes unreasonably."
"But we are fighting very hard to get a second resolution," Blair said.
On Thursday, the atmosphere at the United Nations was thick with possible compromise. "There are many trial balloons up in the air," said one ambassador who holds a key swing vote. "We're watching to see which ones stay up."
Chile and Mexico have been leading a drive by the six countries not publicly committed to one side or another to find a way to bridge the council rift.
Staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Ching-Ching Ni in Beijing contributed to this report.