U.S., Britain See Support for Proposal but Fear Veto

Times Staff Writer

Britain and the U.S. are confident that their proposed ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to disarm by March 17 or face military force can win enough votes in the U.N. Security Council to pass but are still worried about a French or Russian veto, diplomats from both countries said Saturday.

Despite flat opposition from France, Russia, China, Germany and Syria, the sponsors have decided to call for a vote Tuesday barring any major changes over the weekend. To pass, the measure must receive nine votes and no vetoes in the 15-member council.

If the resolution passed, it would allow Iraq six days to give up all weapons of mass destruction and related components, as well as documents supporting Iraqi claims about weapons it says it has destroyed -- a test that most diplomats don't believe Baghdad could meet. If the resolution failed, that could mean war even before March 17.

War sooner or just a little later is an awkward choice for members of the council that believe Iraq is not fully cooperating with U.N. demands but that are reluctant to endorse military action. Mexico has asked for the vote to be delayed, and Pakistan and Chile both would like the deadline in any resolution to be further off.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, who spoke by phone with President Bush on Friday night, said in a radio interview Saturday that the March 17 deadline would come too soon for Iraq to disarm and that he hoped it could be extended. Chile has been discussing giving Iraq at least until the end of March to show "total cooperation," language originally proposed in a Canadian memorandum.

"The destruction of those weapons could take two, three or four months, and [chief weapons inspector Hans] Blix should continue working until he achieves the complete destruction of those arms," Lagos said. He added that it "would be very difficult" to eliminate them in such a short time.

Opponents of the U.S. and British position continued efforts Saturday to win over other nations. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was on his way to Africa today to petition Angola, Guinea and Cameroon. U.S. officials are also considering a last-minute trip to the region before Tuesday.

To leaders who have said that demanding that Iraq come wholly clean in six days is an impossible task -- and thus simply a pretext for war -- American and British officials have offered quiet assurances that they would judge Baghdad's cooperation reasonably.

"The job will not be done in 10 days. We know that perfectly well," said a British diplomat. "But it's plenty of time to show a complete turnaround, an absolute change of heart."

To demonstrate that he was serious, Hussein could allow hundreds of scientists out of the country for interviews, drive alleged mobile biological weapons labs to U.N. offices in Iraq, hand over documents that had been stashed away, or unearth buried weapons, a U.S. official said.

"We know what real disarmament looks like, and it has to be in full swing by March 17," the official said.

Although Britain has signaled that there might be "the slightest" flexibility on deadlines if that would help secure approval, the U.S. seems to be taking a harder line.

"We're ready to go," said Richard A. Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "No more extensions. No more new deadlines."

"We've exhausted our patience," a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. "We're not going to delay any longer. We'll take a veto."

U.S. and British efforts to win over the undeclared countries are not only a bid to muster the votes needed for a resolution to pass. They are also an attempt to show the Security Council's other veto-holders, and in particular France and Russia, that they would be defying a majority of the council if they exercised their veto power.

After Cameroon shifted to support the resolution Friday, the council was divided into three camps of five each: for, against and undeclared. The five that have yet to publicly commit to a side are Angola, Guinea, Chile, Mexico and Pakistan.

Based on extensive discussions with the uncommitted countries, drafters came up with an idea they thought would help sell the resolution to diplomats who feel that neither war nor months more of inspections is a good option.

"The resolution is tempting because if you vote for it, you buy some time for Saddam to cooperate [or] leave power or something else to change things," said a U.S. official. "If you vote against it, war is going to happen soon anyway, and then your relationship with the United States will be in question as well. What would you do if you're a small, undecided country?"

The proposed resolution also has a cunning catch to it. It is written in a way that -- if it passed -- would automatically allow the launch of a military attack on Iraq unless a Security Council member offered a new resolution before March 17 saying that Hussein had "demonstrated full, unconditional, immediate and active cooperation" in disarming.

If such a measure was introduced and the United States and Britain didn't agree that Hussein had shown a complete change of heart, they could veto it and move on with military plans.

The proposed resolution, however, also allows a narrow window for last-ditch, second-track diplomacy. A delegation from the Arab League is heading to Baghdad to try to persuade Hussein to surrender his weapons or step down, although its members have conceded privately that the effort is a long shot.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has initiated a proposal for amnesty for Iraqi officials who aid inspectors, which will be shepherded through the Security Council by Pakistan if the five permanent members show an interest.

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