President Bush and the leaders of Britain and Spain said Sunday that they would give the United Nations until the end of today to authorize the use of military force against Iraq or they would go to war without U.N. approval.
"Tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world," Bush said at the end of a hastily arranged hourlong summit at this blustery U.S. air base in Portugal's Azores islands.
Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar indicated that the window for a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Iraq's Saddam Hussein was all but closed and that war was only days away. In a further sign of that, the State Department on Sunday ordered nonessential diplomats and all embassy dependents out of Kuwait, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Damascus, Syria. Britain today advised all its citizens -- except diplomatic staff -- to leave Kuwait.
In Baghdad, Hussein also acted as though war was imminent and vowed to give as good as he gets.
"When the enemy starts a large-scale battle, he must realize that the battle between us will be open wherever there is sky, land and water in the entire world," he said, according to the official Iraqi news agency.
Bush and his diplomatic partners deliberately left ambiguous whether they would call for a vote today in the U.N. Security Council on a new resolution they have proposed authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq. The measure would follow Resolution 1441, which the council passed unanimously in November and which led to the current round of inspections in Iraq for evidence of Hussein's alleged nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.
A favorable vote by the Security Council on the new resolution would give the United States unquestioned legitimacy for launching a military operation. It would also go a long way toward countering negative public opinion in the United States and elsewhere. But in recent days, U.S. diplomatic efforts have failed to pull together the nine votes needed in the 15-member council, and permanent member France has threatened a veto even if nine members voted in favor.
Debate has raged within the Bush administration over whether defeat of the resolution would be worse diplomatically than withdrawing it altogether.
"The president said what he wanted to say," spokesman Sean McCormack said in response to requests for clarification of whether there would be a vote today. "Win, lose or withdraw, the diplomatic process ends tomorrow."
Change of Mind
Bush had vowed 10 days earlier to bring the resolution to a vote regardless of the outcome, daring council members to "show their cards."
In brief comments to reporters, Bush acknowledged Sunday that since then, his calculation had changed because of France's blanket veto threat.
"After I said what I said, [France] said they would veto anything that held Saddam to account," the president declared with evident irritation. "So cards have been played, and we'll just have to take an assessment after tomorrow to see what that card meant."
Now, Bush said, there is only one way for war to be avoided: "Saddam Hussein can leave the country if he's interested in peace."
During a question-and-answer session with reporters after the summit, Blair, facing a whirlwind of disapproval at home, took issue with the French position that the proposed resolution should not include authorization for launching hostilities. France has asked instead for a meeting of Security Council foreign ministers Tuesday.
"Some say there should be no ultimatum, no authorization of force in any new U.N. resolution -- instead, more discussion in the event of noncompliance," Blair said.
"But the truth is that without a credible ultimatum authorizing force in the event of noncompliance, then more discussion is just more delay."
In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac appeared to soften his position Sunday, telling CNN that he was ready to accept a deadline as little as 30 days away if weapons inspectors in Iraq supported it.
"One month, two months -- I am ready to accept any accord on this point that has the approval of the inspectors," Chirac said.
White House officials dismissed the suggestion as a "nonstarter."
Sunday's last-minute summit, announced Friday, was designed to help Blair and Aznar answer criticism from their fellow citizens that they are rushing to war alongside an American president who has failed to try hard enough for peaceful disarmament. Britain's House of Commons is likely to vote Tuesday on going to war, a count Blair is expected to win, albeit with considerable opposition from his own party.
"We are well aware of the international world public opinion, [but] we are also aware of our serious responsibilities," Aznar said.
Blair said the next 24 hours would be used for a "final round of contacts."
"But we are in the final stages, because after 12 years of failing to disarm [Hussein], now is the time when we have to decide," the prime minister said.
The three co-sponsors were joined in their discussions by Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, whose country supports the U.S. position but does not hold a Security Council seat.
Durao Barroso told reporters that holding the summit in the Azores -- a volcanic island chain about 2,000 miles off the U.S. East Coast -- had symbolic importance at a time when relations between Europe and the United States are strained.
"I think it's important that we meet here ... in this territory of Azores that is halfway between the continent of Europe and the continent of America," he said.
The leaders acknowledged that a decision to wage war without Security Council authorization could weaken the U.N.
"This is one of the things that's tragic about this situation -- that Saddam plays these games [that divide the United Nations] and we carry on allowing him to play them," Blair said.
For his part, Bush said the United Nations has yet to show it can move beyond 20th century principles to operate under 21st century conditions.
"The U.N. must mean something. Remember Rwanda or Kosovo? The U.N. didn't do its job. And we hope tomorrow the U.N. will do its job. If not, all of us need to step back and try to figure out how to make the U.N. work better as we head into the 21st century," he said.
In a bow to international criticism, the four leaders signed a statement pledging that in the event of war, their countries "undertake a solemn obligation to help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors."
In particular, they vowed to rebuild the country, restore any damaged oil wells and return them to the Iraqi people as a "national asset," and work for progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
"It is important to demonstrate, in particular at this time, that our approach to people in the Middle East ... is indeed evenhanded," Blair said.
And in a tacit acknowledgment that the U.N. disagreement has also split the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the four signed a statement reaffirming their "commitment to our core values and the transatlantic alliance that has embodied them for two generations."
"I think Europe and America should stand together on the big issues of the day. I think it is a tragedy when we don't," Blair said.
Bush expressed hope that even if the United Nations chose not to endorse military action, U.N. organizations would take part in Iraq's reconstruction. But for now, the U.N. is focusing on suspending its work in Iraq: Early today, U.N. observers monitoring the Iraq-Kuwait border said they had stopped all operations and were awaiting word on whether to leave.
Bush, Blair and Aznar met at this wind-swept U.S. air base, which is operated jointly with Portugal and has been used as a refueling and transit stop for U.S. military aircraft since World War II.
The summit consisted of a one-hour meeting in a clubhouse on the base, followed by a brief news conference and dinner. The president was on the ground less than four hours.
The chance of the summit's leading to a significantly new diplomatic effort appeared limited from the start, since the four leaders agreed to leave their foreign ministers at home.
In an interview Sunday morning on ABC-TV, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said diplomatic options appeared to have been exhausted.
"Iraq is playing the United Nations and playing some of our friends in the permanent membership of the Security Council like a fiddle," Powell said.
Powell said that a new resolution remained desirable but that Resolution 1441 still provides the United States with legal authority to use force against Iraq.
"Would I have liked to have seen a second resolution because it would have helped our friends with some of their political difficulties? Yes. Do we need a second resolution? No."
Vice President Dick Cheney expressed confidence that the U.S. would not be seen as an imperial power invading Iraq.
"Things have gotten so bad inside Iraq from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will in fact be greeted as liberators," he said on NBC-TV.