UNITED NATIONS—The United States and Britain, undeterred by largely upbeat reports Friday from U.N. weapons inspectors, asked the Security Council to impose a firm deadline on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein—giving him only 10 more days to fully disarm or face war.
Near the end of a tense session punctuated by blunt remarks, British officials circulated an amended resolution that would give Saddam until March 17 to demonstrate "full, unconditional, immediate and active cooperation" with inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction.
A vote was expected next week, but approval seemed extremely unlikely. France, Germany, Russia and China argued strenuously for the continuation of current inspections and several other nations called the amended resolution too belligerent.
"We cannot accept an ultimatum as long as the inspectors are reporting progress," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. "That would mean war."
Even as diplomats and inspectors spoke at the United Nations, around 300,000 U.S. and British troops massed near Iraq for an attack. President Bush has said repeatedly that he will launch a military strike to disarm and oust Saddam without new U.N. authorization if Saddam fails to disarm voluntarily.
U.S. military leaders say their forces are ready to fight if Bush gives the order. Should he decide to go to war, Bush will address the American people again before the fighting starts, according to a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In what could be his last report before war, chief arms inspector Hans Blix praised Iraq for what he called a newly evident "active or even proactive" attitude to inspections. But he also said more progress was necessary and that Iraqi cooperation had come only grudgingly, as the result of international pressure.
Still, Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei, who is in charge of nuclear inspections, said their teams were making headway. Placing himself in direct opposition to the U.S. timetable, Blix issued an implicit plea for more time to complete the task.
"It will not take years, nor weeks, but months," Blix said.
In outlining his latest findings, Blix pointed in particular to the destruction of Iraq's al Samoud 2 missiles. He said 34 of 120 missiles have been dismantled since Saturday.
"The destruction undertaken constitutes a substantial measure of disarmament," Blix said. "We are not watching the destruction of toothpicks. Lethal weapons are being destroyed."
ElBaradei also issued his most positive statement yet.
"After three months of intrusive inspections," ElBaradei said, "we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq."
Unimpressed, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iraq has failed to make the strategic decision to disarm.
Instead, Powell said, Saddam has opted "to continue to delay, to deceive, to try to throw us off the trail, to make it more difficult, to hope that the will of the international community will be fractured."
He said the "limited progress" reported by inspectors resulted from "the presence of a large military force, nations who are willing to put their young men and women in harm's way in order to rid the world of these dangerous weapons."
Powell was markedly more subdued than British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who introduced the amended resolution and delivered a passionate response to critics, particularly France's de Villepin.
"He doesn't need more time to comply," Straw said of Saddam. "As he showed this week, he can act with astonishing speed when he wants to."
But de Villepin and other influential members of the council saw it quite differently.
A veto from France, Russia or China—veto-carrying permanent members of the council—would immediately kill the U.S-backed resolution. De Villepin warned, once again, that his country was prepared to employ that power.
"France will not allow a resolution to pass that authorizes the automatic use of military force," he said.
Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri repeated his country's claims that it no longer has weapons of mass destruction. He called on the international body to help ward off war.
"War against Iraq will not unearth any weapons of mass destruction, but it will wreak destruction," Aldouri said.
Diplomats spent nearly four hours behind closed doors discussing the amended draft resolution, ultimately with little reported progress. They agreed to resume consultations Monday, with a vote possible as early as Tuesday.
Though many of Blix's statements were qualified, he sketched a picture of an inspection regimen that seemed to be gaining traction.
He reported that U.N. inspectors have overcome "initial difficulties raised by the Iraqi side" concerning aerial surveillance flights by helicopters and U-2 reconnaissance planes.
"This is not to say that the operation of inspections is free from frictions," Blix said, "but at this juncture, we are able to perform professional, no-notice inspections all over Iraq and to increase aerial surveillance."
He described a rising number of private interviews with Iraqi scientists, saying that 10 of 38 requests have been granted—seven this past week.
But Blix said he was pressing Iraq, once again, to allow its scientists to be brought to other countries for interviews. "Conditions ensuring the absence of undue influences are difficult to attain inside Iraq," he said.
He also expressed disappointment over what he called Iraq's incomplete and tardy surrender of important documents and other data concerning the disposal of chemical and biological weapons after the first Gulf War in 1991.
Blix said Iraq recently provided additional material concerning anthrax and the VX nerve agent, but the documents did not appear to be helpful.
"Many have been found to restate what Iraq has already declared," he said. Iraq claims to have destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction, but the Bush administration disputes that assertion.
Blix said Iraqi actions so far "cannot be said to constitute immediate cooperation, nor do they necessarily cover all areas of relevance."
But he also said: "One can hardly avoid the impression that, after a period of somewhat reluctant cooperation, there has been an acceleration of initiatives from the Iraqi side since the end of January."
When his turn came, ElBaradei took two jabs at the United States:
He said inspectors are now certain that aluminum tubes identified as suspicious by the Bush administration were not intended for use in the refinement of uranium for nuclear weapons use.
"Extensive field investigation and document analysis have failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these 81mm tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets," he said.
And he said documents supporting an allegation that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001 were found to be "in fact, not authentic."
After the inspectors delivered their reports, the session was marked by two particularly passionate speeches, one by France's de Villepin, the other by Britain's Straw.
"War is always an acknowledgement of failure," said de Villepin, looking directly at Powell and Straw, who sat next to each other across the horseshoe-shaped table.
Noting the areas where Iraq has increased compliance with U.N. inspections, he asked:
"Why smash the instruments that have just proven their effectiveness? Why choose division when our unity and our resolve are leading Iraq to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction? Why should we wish to proceed, at any price, by force when we can succeed peacefully?"
De Villepin called for a summit of heads of state at the Security Council to decide how to face "an essential choice—disarming Iraq through war or through peace."
Straw, addressing de Villepin by his first name, responded:
"Dominique, that's a false choice. I wish that it were that easy, because we wouldn't be having to have this discussion. We could all put up our hands for disarmament by peace and go home.
"The paradox we face is that the only way we are going to achieve disarmament by peace ... is by backing our diplomacy with the credible threat of force.
"And the choice—the choice, Dominique—is not ours as to how this disarmament takes place. The choice is Saddam Hussein's. Would that it were ours, because it would be so easy. But sadly, it is not."
Near the end of the session, an unsigned paper in resolution format began circulating among reporters, calling for amnesty for Iraqi officials who complied with disarmament demands and affirming that country's determination "to avoid the use of force."
Diplomats inside the council chamber said they were not aware of the unofficial draft and said that it was not discussed in the meeting. No delegation claimed responsibility for the floated paper.
(Ibarguen reported from the United Nations, Merzer from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.