The Bush administration mounted a last-ditch effort Sunday to win public and diplomatic support for military action against Iraq, while Iraqi President Saddam Hussein countered by inviting the chief U.N. weapons inspector to Baghdad on March 17 -- America's proposed deadline for Iraq to disarm or face war.
Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amin, Iraq's chief liaison to the inspectors, did not give a reason for the invitation. He said only that Baghdad hopes it can still persuade Hans Blix and his monitors to certify that the country is not harboring weapons of mass destruction and thereby remove any "pretext" for war.
There was no word from Blix in New York on Sunday evening as to whether he would accept the invitation. But U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki in Baghdad said, "We are not aware of any Blix visit."
In a brighter spot for the Bush administration, Turkish politician Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a seat in parliament Sunday and was expected to become prime minister, perhaps as early as this week, improving chances that Turkey might allow U.S. troops to use military bases there as a staging area for an assault on Iraq from the north.
Erdogan, Turkey's de facto leader, had advocated the deployment of 62,000 U.S. troops in the country but failed to persuade lawmakers, who bowed to public opinion March 1 and unexpectedly defeated the request . The United States has been pressing Turkey to reconsider and has kept about two dozen ships with military equipment waiting off the coast, in the Mediterranean.
Erdogan has not said whether he would ask parliament to vote again on the issue. And it was unclear how long the Bush administration would wait for a decision from Turkey before starting a war that it says would be more difficult, but by no means impossible, without a northern front.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States is "within striking distance" of garnering nine or 10 U.N. Security Council votes this week for an ultimatum giving Hussein until March 17 to disarm or face military attack. Nine votes are required for passage.
Powell said he would not be surprised if France, a permanent member of the council, were to veto the resolution.
"We'll wait and see what they actually do, but right now I would expect the French to do everything they can to stop it, to include possible use of the veto," Powell told Fox News.
The U.N. vote on the ultimatum, which would be the 18th resolution on Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, could take place as soon as Tuesday, Powell said.
U.S. and French officials, whose positions were hardening, spent the weekend rounding up allies for their upcoming diplomatic duel.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was heading for Africa to urge three undecided members of the Security Council to support France in rejecting the resolution and giving weapons inspectors more time to disarm Iraq.
Opposition to a war continued Sunday with demonstrations in Asia.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the staunchest supporter of the U.S. policy, continued to face opposition within the ranks of his government. A junior minister quit, leading to speculation that others would follow. And International Development Secretary Clare Short said she would resign if there was a war without a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force.
Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice blanketed the American airwaves Sunday morning, appearing on the five major television talk shows to advance the administration's case.
Both all but ruled out a last-minute compromise with either the French or the Iraqis that could avert war.
Both stressed that the time for inspections, debate and diplomacy would be over next week, when President Bush will call for a U.N. vote -- even one he thinks the United States might lose.
Rice told ABC's "This Week" that even if a vote on the resolution failed, the U.S. "at a time and place of its choosing" would lead a coalition "made up in large part of states that have suffered under tyranny" to disarm Hussein and change the Iraqi regime.
In Baghdad, a senior official boasted of Iraq's preparedness for war. "Iraq's leadership, people and army are ready for the battle of destiny," Deputy Prime Minister Abdel Tawab Mullah Huweish said during a meeting with Hussein, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.
Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, said an Arab League delegation would travel to Baghdad in coming days in a last-ditch attempt to avert a war. Although the league is badly divided over the Iraq crisis, the purpose of the trip is to enhance "cooperation between Iraq and the U.N," a league spokesman said in Cairo.
The United Arab Emirates has proposed that Hussein go into exile, and several Arab leaders have said privately that they would like that outcome, so far flatly rejected in Baghdad.
The U.S. will give "prudent notice" to weapons inspectors in Iraq, as well as to any remaining "human shields" or other Westerners, to leave Iraq before hostilities begin, administration officials said. Rice warned Hussein not to take the inspectors hostage. She declined to say how the U.S. would respond if he did, but she repeated, "He should not try it."
Some Westerners Leave
The inspectors may withdraw from Baghdad before the March 17 deadline. Many diplomatic missions and U.N. humanitarian agencies there have already started to trim their staffs in anticipation of war, and U.N. officials have repeatedly said that they have evacuation plans.
Amin, the Iraqi liaison to the inspectors, said Baghdad was ignoring the proposed U.S.-British ultimatum.
"We are working hard to meet our obligations and to overcome any obstacles," he said. "Whether that takes a week, 10 days or a month, we are doing everything we can. We are not interested in dates and times."
Noting that Iraq destroyed six more of its Al-Samoud 2 missiles Sunday, for a total of 46 in nine days, Amin said Iraq was already doing its utmost to show its compliance with U.N. demands that it disarm.
"We hope that this will guide [inspectors] to reach the conclusion that Iraq is rid completely of weapons of mass destruction and to recommend to the Security Council the lifting of the unfair sanctions imposed on the courageous Iraqi people," he said.
Powell called Iraq's request "silly" and "outrageous" and said the statement showed that Hussein's basic intention was to stall for time and try to divide the international community.
Fears that Iraq or the Al Qaeda terrorist network would respond to a U.S. attack on Baghdad with strikes appeared to increase, with media reports, all unconfirmed, that terrorists might be planning to poison food supplies in the United States or at military installations abroad. The Arab television network Al Jazeera reported that there was a suicide-bombing training camp in northern Baghdad, with volunteers from Arab countries prepared to give their lives for Hussein.
Asked about the report, Amin answered vaguely: "We are preparing ourself for war at the same time we are working to resolve pending issues" with the weapons inspectors.
"We are preparing ourselves. All the people will fight against any foreign forces trying to enter Iraq," Amin said.
Whether many Iraqi civilians would welcome or fight a foreign invasion to oust Hussein, and how long they would tolerate a U.S.-led occupation, remained an issue of heated debate Sunday.
But the Pentagon has made clear that to minimize U.S. casualties, divide Hussein's forces and hasten Iraq's defeat, it wants to launch a two-pronged attack from Turkey and Kuwait.
The question now for U.S. war planners is what to do with the warships off the coast of Turkey while Ankara makes up its mind.
It would take the ships about 10 days to sail south through the Suez Canal to Kuwait, the Pentagon's chief staging area.
Some of the equipment on the ships has been unloaded in recent days and moved to a temporary staging area in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Iraqi border.
Washington has offered Turkey $15 billion in aid if it cooperates. Lawmakers from Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party have said they are seeking firmer guarantees that the money would be delivered. They also demand a role for Iraq's smallTurkoman minority in a post-Hussein ruling council whose makeup U.S. officials brokered last week.
The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, W. Robert Pearson, spent three hours with Erdogan on Sunday, trying to persuade him that he can count on the money and representation for the Turkomans.
The Justice and Development Party swept to power in parliamentary elections in November. But Erdogan himself was barred from running for office because of a 1998 conviction for inciting religious hatred after he recited a poem with Islamist overtones at a rally in the southeastern city of Siirt. Parliament has since lifted the ban against him.
On Sunday, Erdogan and two members of his party won all three vacant parliamentary seats in Siirt, winning about 85% of the vote.
Asked Sunday night about his next step, Erdogan said: "We have the U.N. Security Council before us. We have the process of forming a new government. We need to assess all these very carefully, and then we will take a decision.
"The expected coalition [at the Security Council] is not there, and the lack of it is threatening the process," he added. "I still haven't lost hope for peace, even if it's a thousand-to-one chance."
Efron reported from Washington, Boudreaux from Ankara and Daniszewski from Baghdad.