France and Russia declared Monday that they would veto a resolution authorizing war against Iraq, forcing the United States to put off a Security Council vote while searching for a compromise that would salvage the proposal.
With 300,000 troops massing in the Middle East, the U.S., Britain and Spain were still unable to muster a majority of the council members to back a March 17 deadline for Iraq to disarm or be invaded. The Bush administration still hopes to have a vote this week.
But even if the U.S. wins over a majority of the 15-member council, it still has to deal with the veto issue. After dropping strong hints in recent days, France and Russia said Monday that they would veto the resolution.
"My position is that whatever the circumstances, France will vote no because it considers, this evening, that there is no reason to go to war to achieve the objective we have set, that is the disarmament of Iraq," French President Jacques Chirac said during a television interview in Paris.
A French veto would mark the first time since the 1956 Suez crisis that France has blocked a U.S. proposal at the Security Council. Chirac also warned that a U.S.-led war against Iraq would break up the international coalition of about 90 nations fighting the war on terrorism.
Chirac's declaration clearly sent ripples through the bloc of undecided countries, including Pakistan and Chile, causing some to reassess the costs and benefits of supporting a resolution that may fail. Today, a ruling party spokesman in Pakistan said his country intends to abstain from any vote.
The Bush administration said it was not surprised by France's decision but felt that Russia's position did not rule out an eventual shift. In what increasingly looks like a game of chicken, Washington is still trying to get the nine votes needed to pass a resolution, in the hope that it can convince Russia not to vote against the majority.
The outcome would then be decided by a diplomatic face-off at the Security Council between the United States and France, with Washington calculating that Paris would, in the end, choose not to cast its veto.
The calculation is based on weakening Russia, however, at the very moment it appears to be firming up its resistance. If the resolution is put to a vote this week, "Russia will vote against," Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov warned Monday. He called the ultimatum contradictory and unattainable.
He also appealed to other voting members to "take a decision in favor of a political settlement" and said the inspections should be allowed to run for several more months.
With the tide turning against them, the United States and Britain regrouped as they considered ideas to win votes on the polarized Security Council. Among the proposals is listing specific "tasks" or "tests" Iraq must perform to prove it is surrendering its weapons of mass destruction.
"Some nations have suggested such things as benchmarks. There are ideas that are being explored and looked at. And so it is too soon to say what the final document that will be voted on will include. It's too soon to say what the exact date will be," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday.
"There's an important phase of diplomacy underway as we speak. That diplomacy is marked by some level of flexibility," Fleischer said.
By laying out clear tests for Baghdad, the United States and its allies hope to address other nations' concerns about what Iraq can do to avert war.
Britain, responding to growing domestic and international opposition to war, pressed for the new steps to forge a consensus. "We are examining whether a list of defined tasks for Iraqi compliance would be useful in helping the council come to a judgment," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament on Monday.
Those tests could include demands that Iraq allow many or most of the 300 top Iraqi scientists to leave the country for interviews and that Baghdad turn over to U.N. inspectors the mobile laboratories Washington alleges are used to produce chemical and biological weapons, U.S. and British officials said.
Other Security Council members have requested clarifications of what Iraq must do to comply, said a U.S. envoy at the United Nations.
"But they are also saying, 'Make it easier for us to support the resolution.' It doesn't mean that they oppose the resolution. This could satisfy any concerns," the envoy said.
U.S. officials are also wary that the move could backfire.
"We have entertained the idea but haven't gone very far because of all the drawbacks. People will start giving things Iraqis can say 'yes' to .... At the same time, we are listening if people say, 'Do it this way, and then we'll sign on,' " a senior State Department official said.
In a politically charged Security Council session Monday, chief inspector Hans Blix said he was prepared to present key unresolved issues in the form of tests, but he cautioned that they could not be completed in less than "a few months."
The March 17 deadline for compliance was also under discussion, although only a slight delay was possible, U.N. envoys said. Again, Washington is cool to the idea.
"Some countries are inclined in that direction, but it doesn't appeal to us. What is he going to do in a month that he won't do in a week?" the State Department official said of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In a bid to find common ground at the Security Council, envoys from six rotating members -- the swing votes -- agreed Monday to propose the alternative deadline of April 17. The six swing votes are Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan. But the six were rebuffed by the U.S. and Britain, sources at the U.N. said, and withdrew their idea before formally presenting it. British officials reportedly told them that the time frame could not go beyond March.
As talks continued behind closed doors at the United Nations and in telephone calls across oceans, the date for a Security Council vote also slipped. Tentatively pegged for Tuesday, it will now happen later in the week, U.S. and British officials said.
Despite the setbacks, the United States tried one last shot at winning support. In a diplomatic blitz, President Bush talked to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Sultan Kaboos ibn Said of Oman, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey's ruling party, who is expected to become prime minister this week.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell hosted Guinean Foreign Minister Francois Lonseny Fall and called Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez and the foreign ministers of Britain and Spain, which co-sponsored the resolution.
To strengthen its case against Iraq, Washington also stressed the importance of new evidence that Baghdad has developed drone airplanes and cluster bombs to disperse chemical and biological weapons. The information was outlined in a report filed Friday by Blix but not discussed in his presentation to the Security Council.
Inspectors recently found the drone, which has a 24 1/2-foot wingspan, apparently configured for dispersing toxic weapons. Baghdad is required to declare all "unmanned aerial vehicles" with a range exceeding 93 miles.
Another recent discovery was a rocket configured to drop bomblets with chemical weapons that could be many times more lethal than a crude weapon hitting the ground and dispersing poisons, U.S. officials say. Inspectors have found dozens of them.
The Bush administration is now charging that the Blix report, in effect, was not negative enough or a fair reflection of recent discoveries.
"Iraq continues to demonstrate that it has not really changed its strategic intent, which is the case we've been making all along. So we're concerned about that, and I think other information will be coming forward that suggests Iraq has really not changed," Powell said after talks with Fall.
"There are items being found by the inspectors that deserve the focus of the international community and should probably be discussed more and more with them up in New York," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.
"We think it is necessary for people to look at the totality of what the inspectors are presenting and what the inspectors are finding, and to look at it in some detail like this, in order to understand what's really going on."
During intense questioning, however, Blix said the items were not a "smoking gun," although he conceded that Iraq was in violation for not listing them in its December declaration.
But other hurdles appeared more difficult for Washington to overcome. Pakistan had privately indicated its support for the resolution, but after massive weekend protests, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali said Monday that his government would not support any military designs against Iraq.
"Pakistan cannot become a party to the destruction of Iraq and does not want to see any harm done to the Iraqi people," he told parliament.
Today, a ruling party spokesman, Azim Chaudry, told reporters that this means Pakistan will abstain from voting rather than cast a no vote.
The onus of making a decision has been weighing so heavily on Pakistan that Musharraf said over the weekend that the nation may have made a mistake in becoming one of the elected Security Council members.
Chile, too, indicated that it is loath to choose between the pro-war and antiwar positions on the council.
"We know our vote in the council is very important, and that's why we seek a different alternative to the resolution proposed last Friday," said Chilean Foreign Minister Maria Soledad Alvear Valenzuela.
Chile, being courted intensely by both Washington and Paris, is among the countries pressing for a set of precise goals by which to judge Iraq's disarmament. It also wants a resolution that does not require a vote against any of the major powers on the Security Council.
The three African countries on the council, which Washington thought it had won over, may still be up for grabs after French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin visited them. War-ravaged and aid-dependent Angola may eventually support the resolution. The U.S. is its largest source of financial support.
Powell said he was not "in competition" with his French counterpart.
"I have been on the phone most of the morning with nations around the world. It's a combination of phones, visits and means of that type that allow you to make your point. And so I'm not in competition with anybody. I'm trying to do my job the way I think I can do it best," he told reporters.
In Baghdad, U.N. inspectors continued their work, including witnessing the destruction of six more Al-Samoud 2 missiles and three missile warheads.
U.S. officials charged that Baghdad was drawing out a process that could be completed in a few days. They also claimed that Iraq has placed explosives around its oil fields in both northern Kirkuk and the vast southern fields.
Iraq denied the claims. "Iraq is keen to defend its oil wells, and it is illogical that we burn our oil wells with our own hands," Oil Ministry Undersecretary Hussein Suleiman Hadithi told Reuters.
Although diplomacy is far from over, the United States advanced its plans for war. Gen. Tommy Franks, who oversees the U.S. Central Command, left for the Persian Gulf on Monday -- with no return date scheduled, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Robyn Dixon in Moscow; Sebastian Rotella in Paris; John Daniszewski in Baghdad; Hector Tobar and Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; Davan Maharaj in Los Angeles; Chris Kraul and Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Greg Miller and John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.