Britain drove efforts Tuesday to craft a compromise U.N. Security Council resolution that would give Saddam Hussein a list of tests to prove Iraq's commitment to disarmament as U.S. patience with diplomacy dwindled.
Deep divisions remain in the 15-member council on how much more time Iraq should get, with France and Russia insisting that they will veto any proposal that gives a green light to war.
"We are busting a gut to see if we can get greater consensus in the council," said British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, who added that he expects a vote by Friday. "We are going to go on talking until we find a way forward through the Security Council together."
Desperate for U.N. backing before joining an attack on Iraq, British officials have quietly pushed aside the current draft that demands that Hussein fully disarm by Monday or face invasion. British negotiators have indicated that they could stretch the proposed deadline but warned against pushing the issue beyond month's end.
The United States is willing to accept moving the deadline past Monday but not by much.
Bolstered by polls that show growing public acceptance of an attack on Iraq even without U.N. backing, Washington is losing patience with the U.N. process. "There's a little room for a little more diplomacy, but not much time," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, shooting down a compromise proposal suggesting a 30-day or 45-day deadline extension as a "non-starter."
In an attempt to give Britain some breathing room, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested that America could take military action against Iraq not only without the United Nations' blessing, but also without Britain's help.
"To the extent that they [the British] are able to participate, that would obviously be welcomed," Rumsfeld said in response to a reporter's question. "To the extent they're not, there are workarounds, and they would not be involved, at least in [the military] phase of it."
Rumsfeld's comments were intended to give the British maneuverability, U.S. officials said. But surprised British officials quickly reaffirmed that more than 40,000 troops Prime Minister Tony Blair has pledged would accompany U.S. forces into battle. Rumsfeld issued a statement later saying he did not doubt Britain's commitment to seeing Iraq disarmed.
Britain has proposed giving Hussein 10 days to prove that Iraq has taken a "strategic decision" to disarm by fulfilling a set of tests or benchmarks. If Iraq makes that decision, a second phase would begin with more time to verify Baghdad's full disarmament.
"There is a two-stage process," Greenstock said. "One is to be convinced that Iraq is cooperating, the other is to disarm Iraq completely."
Ten days is not enough time, say the Security Council's "middle ground" countries that hold swing votes and are asking for a 45-day window. Canada, a non-council member which has been playing the role of mediator, proposed an alternative of three weeks.
A New York Times/CBS poll found that while 52% of Americans favor giving inspections more time, 55% said they would support military action without U.N. support. The poll was taken of 1,010 adults March 7-9. The margin of error was 3%.
But for at least a few more days, the U.S. and Britain will continue to vie for council support against France, Russia and China, who say force is not yet necessary to neutralize Iraq.
French President Jacques Chirac said Monday that France would veto the resolution "whatever the circumstances," while Russia has said it would veto the proposed resolution now on the table, leaving room for potential compromise. Of the 10 nonpermanent council members, Spain, Bulgaria and Cameroon have sided with the U.S., and Germany and Syria with the French, while the rest say they are still seeking middle ground.
In negotiations that one diplomat described as "gradual, painful and unproductive," consensus was beginning to emerge around a handful of tests for Iraq to meet -- by Monday, if the U.S. has its way, or up to six weeks later if other countries get theirs. At the top of the list would be demands for interviews outside Iraq with scientists associated with the country's past weapons programs. Such interviews are seen as the best potential source of information about Iraq's current capabilities.
Other tasks would measure Iraq's cooperation and actual disarmament, calling on authorities to destroy stocks of deadly VX nerve gas and anthrax or to credibly account for their past destruction. Iraq might also have to complete destruction of Al-Samoud 2 missiles that are deemed by the United Nations as exceeding a 93-mile limit and to prove that a newly discovered fleet of drones does not surpass U.N. restrictions and cannot deliver biological or chemical weapons, as inspectors suspect.
"We're talking at the Bush-Blair level, to [France, Russia and China], to the middle six and others," said a senior diplomatic source close to the negotiations. "You get an inch from one side, and you use that to get an inch from the other."
The main disagreements center on how to judge Iraq's compliance and whether an attack would be automatic if Baghdad failed to meet the deadline, say diplomats on both sides of the negotiations. While President Bush, Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar work the phones, British envoys are doing the nitty-gritty work to secure the nine votes needed for the resolution to pass. And then they must win Washington's approval for the deal as well.
Even if France or Russia vetoed the resolution, Britain and the U.S. hope they can claim a kind of moral victory, painting the rejection as "unreasonable" and saying that they are acting to protect their own people from a realistic and horrible threat.
It is a high-stakes gamble for all, but especially for Britain. Blair's Cabinet members, the British public and legal scholars are challenging the legitimacy of a war conducted without the Security Council's explicit mandate. A poll published Monday showed that only 19% of the British public is behind military action without a U.N. resolution, and a member of Blair's Labor Cabinet, Clare Short, threatened to step down if Britain went to war without a U.N. mandate.
Other council members, notably the resolution's co-sponsor Spain, and Pakistan, are also feeling intense pressure. Aznar faces a possible backlash in local elections in May, and Pakistan, which has privately signaled its probable support to U.S. officials, said Tuesday that it might abstain from a vote if the resolution did not change. In a televised address to the nation Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali said: "It would be very difficult for Pakistan to support war against Iraq. This goes against the interests of my nation and of my government."
But as a reward for Pakistan's cooperation in the anti-terrorism campaign and its potential support in the Security Council, the White House has asked Jamali to visit March 28. Bush will also welcome Cameroon's president within the next 10 days, U.S. officials said.
Outside the council, staunch U.S. ally Australian Prime Minister John Howard is under attack at home for sending 2,000 troops to the Middle East, and Arab nations that support the Bush administration -- mostly behind the scenes -- are nervous about growing dissent among their publics.
An open debate in the Security Council that began Tuesday made clear that the prospect of war on Iraq has plenty more opponents. In the first half of a two-day session on Iraq, non-council members had a chance to air their views.
Times staff writers Robin Wright and Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.