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U.S. to Delay a Vote on Iraq

Times Staff Writers

Faced with scant Security Council support to disarm Iraq by force, U.S. officials said Thursday that President Bush would delay a vote on the troubled U.N. resolution -- or even drop it.

Despite Bush’s demand that council members “show their hands” this week, U.S. and British diplomats said they would work intensively for a few more days to find a compromise. Chile and Mexico are drafting a new proposal they hope will unite the 15-member council after 11 countries failed to sign on to a U.S.-backed British compromise proposal Thursday night. But Washington insisted that action against Iraq could still happen -- with or without the council’s approval.

“The United States is not in this alone,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a House appropriations subcommittee, citing allies who have agreed to join the U.S. and Britain, resolution or not.

But U.S. officials weren’t willing to admit defeat yet.

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“We can’t say we’re much farther along today than we were yesterday, but in diplomacy, sometimes you have to give things a little time to work,” said John D. Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. The resolution, he insisted, “is still on the table.”

The resolution’s failure would be a diplomatic setback for both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has essentially staked his political career on winning U.N. backing for an attack on Iraq in the face of mounting antiwar sentiment in Britain.

Washington and London have been hedging their bets for the last two weeks by painting a promised veto by France or Russia as unreasonable and saying they would not allow their countries’ security to be put at risk.

But until late Wednesday, they had seemed confident that they could secure the minimum nine votes needed to pass a resolution, and then claim a moral victory even if it were vetoed. On Thursday night, they weren’t so sure.

“We can’t discard the possibility of withdrawing it,” Spanish Ambassador Inocencio F. Arias, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, said. “But right now we’re working on it with the six” undecided countries, he said, referring to Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan.

“If by Monday we don’t have anything, it will be a nightmare,” he said. “I don’t like to think about it.”

A senior State Department official said that if Chile and Mexico don’t come up with something that the council can agree to by Monday, the U.S. will either call a vote on the existing resolution or withdraw it.

“We said March 17 ought to be the deadline, and unless there’s something that gels in the Security Council by then, there’s no reason to push beyond that,” he said.

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Powell first broached Thursday morning the possibility that the vote might not happen by the end of the week, if at all. “We are still talking to members of the council to see what is possible,” he told the House subcommittee.

The administration might also withdraw the resolution and go it alone, he said. “All the options that you can imagine are before us, and we will be examining them today, tomorrow and into the weekend,” Powell said.

A solution seemed far away Thursday morning after veto holders France, Russia and China swiftly rejected the British proposal as simply a means of delaying war, not as a way to avert it.

The British draft offered six tests for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to pass to prove he is serious about disarming, including a potentially humiliating television appearance informing his country of his decision to surrender hidden weapons. France and other critics said some of the tests were impossible to meet by next week’s proposed deadline and wouldn’t exhaust peaceful means of disarmament before resorting to war.

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At the Security Council, several diplomats said it might be better to dump the controversial proposal to protect the unanimity of last fall’s U.N. Resolution 1441, which gave Iraq “a final chance” to disarm. In a four-hour council meeting, only the U.S., Britain, Spain and Bulgaria unequivocally supported the proposal.

“I think it would be better for them to withdraw it if there will be a veto or not enough votes,” Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins said.

After a day of talks at the U.N. and phone calls and recriminations between world leaders, Russian Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov summed up the distance between the two sides: “How can you have a compromise between peace and war?” he asked after the council meeting.

But Chile and Mexico, two crucial undecided countries on the council, said they were determined to try.

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They have drafted an initiative that includes a list of what they call seven “achievable” tasks for Hussein to complete in three weeks to prove Iraq’s commitment to disarmament. At the end of that time, the council would meet to determine whether Iraq had complied. There would be no automatic trigger for war.

France and Germany warmed slightly Thursday evening, saying they were willing to discuss the possibility of a reasonable time frame for Iraq to disarm. France had proposed a similar plan based on stronger inspections, with tests for Iraq and a 120-day timeline. In negotiations, France has indicated that the window could be narrowed to 90 days, but it dismissed a proposed U.S.-British deadline of March 17 as “absurd.”

But even a three-week deadline may be too long for Washington to stomach. As diplomatic efforts were still underway, military deployments in the Persian Gulf continued.

The Turkish parliament agreed Thursday to hold a weekend session to decide whether to allow the U.S. to base troops in Turkey to attack Iraq from the north. The United States also pressed for a final answer on use of Turkey’s airspace, the fallback position that would allow the U.S. to airlift troops into northern Iraq and fly bombing missions into other parts of Iraq.

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Bush sent a toughly worded letter to incoming Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday asking him for a decision. The letter, hand-delivered by U.S. Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, was followed by a telephone call from Vice President Dick Cheney.

The personalized coalition-building has been key in past years when the United States needed U.N. backing, but especially when it didn’t. Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Secretary of State James A. Baker III spent six months traveling the globe building a coalition to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. The resolution passed 12 to 2, with Cuba and Yemen objecting and China abstaining.

Last fall, after nearly two months of intense lobbying, the Bush administration pulled off a diplomatic coup by winning unanimous support for Resolution 1441, giving Iraq “a final chance” to disarm.

Under President Clinton, the United States launched military action twice with partners without the approval of the Security Council. In 1998, to the council’s utter surprise, the U.S. and Britain started a four-day bombing of Iraq, Operation Desert Fox, to punish Hussein for blocking weapons inspectors.

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In 1999, after Russia had made clear in a private meeting of foreign ministers at Heathrow Airport that it would block a resolution to authorize military action to stop the war in Yugoslavia, the U.S. formed a NATO-based “coalition of the willing” to stop the crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province.

Iraq hustled to meet U.N. disarmament demands and announced Thursday that it expects to deliver reports on the deadly agent VX and anthrax this week, a move that could satisfy a condition of the British disarmament plan.

Iraq said it produced about 8,500 liters of anthrax and about 3.9 tons of VX and has told inspectors it destroyed its inventory of the agents in 1991.

A recently released U.N. report estimated that Iraq’s potential production of anthrax “could have been in the range of about 15,000 to 25,000 liters.”

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“We are trying to avoid war,” Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Douri said.

“We know what the consequences of war are. But it seems like it cannot be averted.”

*

Farley reported from the United Nations and Wright from Washington. Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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