WASHINGTON—In an effort to win U.N. Security Council support, the United States is backing down from its demands that a new U.N. resolution must authorize military force against Iraq if Baghdad does not abide by new weapons inspections rules.
The new U.S. approach could delay, possibly significantly, the Pentagon's timetable for war, both because of the time it would take for inspectors to do their work, and for the diplomatic process should the inspection effort fail.
The U.S. retreat suggests that the Bush administration is anxious to preserve a multilateral approach to Iraq, as Secretary of State Colin Powell has advocated, rather than risk going it alone, the course favored by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Under compromise language put forward by the United States, Iraq would face unspecified serious consequences if it failed to comply with stiff requirements for the new U.N. inspections regime.
But, in a major change of approach demanded by France, Iraqi noncompliance would not automatically give the United States a green light to launch an invasion and oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, several Western diplomats said.
Instead, the U.N. Security Council would hold additional meetings and perhaps pass a new resolution authorizing the use of force.
It remains unclear whether Bush could or would launch military action while U.N. diplomats are debating.
One U.S. official said the proposal would not limit the United States from acting on its own, noting that the wording of the resolution would make it "quite clear that the Council has to do nothing more."
But a European diplomat in New York called it unlikely. "I don't see them going (to war) by themselves in the middle of these two steps. That doesn't make sense," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
France's initial reaction to the U.S. concession was positive, suggesting agreement on the new approach to Iraq could come soon.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov welcomed the new proposal and said Powell told him it would be formally submitted soon. "We believe that there are favorable conditions now to preserve the unity of the global community and ensure the return of international inspectors and their efficient work in Iraq," Ivanov said in Moscow.
Ambassadors from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France—were to meet Friday in New York to hammer out a final deal, before sharing the document with the council's 10 nonpermanent members.
"Everything should go quickly now," the European diplomat said.
U.S. officials portrayed the outcome as a victory for their demand that Iraq submit to unfettered inspections to eliminate its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or face stiff consequences.
Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy organization, said the United States had no choice but to compromise. "Nobody is going to accept a resolution that gives the U.S. license to do whatever it wants," she said. "If the United States is going to be a good citizen in the international community, they can't bludgeon their fellow members."
The new U.S. approach comes after weeks of political wrangling on how to deal with Iraq. President Bush touched off the flurry of activity with his Sept. 12 speech to the world body, in which he cautioned that the United Nations risked irrelevance if it failed to deal with the "grave and gathering danger" posed by Iraq.
An earlier U.S. draft resolution sanctioning an immediate attack on Iraq met with strong resistance. France has pushed for a two-resolution approach that would force the United States to return to the Council to authorize military action. Many countries, including Russia favor that approach.
During an open Security Council debate on Iraq, which started Wednesday and continued Thursday, dozens of nations refused to endorse the Bush administration's demand for an authorization of military action. They said Iraq must be given a chance to completely disarm without that imminent threat.
Many warned that a new war would add to the suffering of the Iraqi people, possibly engulf the Middle East in conflict, and have dire consequences for global stability and the world economy.
James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the think-tank Heritage Foundation, said the compromise resolution would be good, but not perfect.
"It's still possible that a military reaction could happen fairly soon if Iraq reneges, but it could have been stronger," said Phillips. "It's better than if they'd required it to come back to the Security Council, but not as good as if they had said this was Iraq's last chance."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.