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Powell's behind-the-scenes battle for U.N. resolution pays off

WASHINGTON—The United Nations' unanimous vote Friday for a U.S.-drafted resolution to disarm Iraq is a major victory for Secretary of State Colin Powell and his internationalist view of foreign policy, current and former U.S. officials and analysts said.

Over the past two months, Powell has fought an intense behind-the-scenes battle in Washington to ensure that if the Bush administration goes to war with Iraq, it does so with international backing and the moral force of the United Nations behind it, the officials said.

At several crucial points, Powell prevailed over Pentagon and White House officials who are suspicious of the world body. He convinced the only person who mattered: his boss, President Bush.

The vote to send U.N. weapons inspectors back to Iraq and give leader Saddam Hussein "a final opportunity" to disarm peacefully completes a dramatic policy shift by Bush.

Last summer, the president and some aides were touting a new doctrine of "pre-emptive attack" against potential threats to the United States. Iraq would be the first test case, they hinted.

In a speech in late August that rattled allies abroad and the foreign policy establishment at home, Vice President Dick Cheney warned: "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of (Saddam's) compliance with U.N. resolutions. On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow `back in his box.'"

Powell was never comfortable with that approach. In concert with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, he got Bush's backing to begin tortuous and sometimes grueling negotiations over the Iraq resolution with other U.N. Security Council members.

The bargaining continued until minutes before Friday morning's vote, when Powell flashed word to the White House that Syria was on board, making the tally 15-0, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I think it's a victory for him," said Bill Smullen, a long-time Powell confidant who was the secretary's chief of staff until August.

"You win some and you lose some," Smullen said. "In this particular case, the folks on the diplomatic side of the issue, wanting diplomacy to at least be given a chance" carried the day.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commended Bush and Powell for forging an international consensus on Iraq after months during which Washington and key allies seemed sharply at odds.

"By going through the United Nations, we have gained critical international support if it becomes necessary to use force to disarm Saddam," Biden said.

Despite his star power, Powell sometimes has seemed outside the mainstream of a Bush foreign policy dominated by hawks such as Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who are less attuned to the concerns of other countries.

Bush's speech in June postponing intensive U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and calling for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's replacement was widely seen as a rebuff to Powell and the State Department.

Rumors—firmly denied by Powell's aides—soon circulated that he might resign, or not serve a second term if Bush won one.

In an interview Wednesday with two student journalists who were representing the KRT Campus, a Knight Ridder/Tribune news service for college publications, Powell said he relished the clash of ideas, both within the administration and with U.S. allies.

"The only thing that really counts is where do you come out at the end of the day," Powell said.

The U.N. resolution "satisfies every principled position that we had," he said. "And in the process of working through this problem over the last seven and a half weeks now, almost seven and a half weeks, we listened to our friends. Everybody accuses us of being unilateral and unaccommodating. We listened. Believe me, we listened."

Still, several observers said Powell might be open to criticism if Saddam manipulated the renewed weapons-inspection process and the United Nations failed to agree on a response.

"It could be leading us into a briar patch," said a Middle East expert close to the administration, who requested anonymity. "It's a victory for the policy, but not a vindication of it."

Plus, the expert noted, it was Bush's threats to abandon the U.N. approach and move against Iraq unilaterally that helped persuade doubters such as France and Russia.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a policy research center in Washington, said the credit went not to Powell but to Bush for standing firm on principle.

"He's doing what they want because he wants to," she said of Bush's advisers.

The president, Pletka said, remains committed to ousting Saddam, but essentially said: "I'm going to indulge the international community. I'm going to play your game."

Bush reportedly signed on to the U.N. approach in late August, after Powell convinced him it would cast the dispute as one between Saddam and the world, rather than just the United States vs. Iraq, and would not limit his ability to take unilateral military action if necessary.

According to a well-connected former official, it was not until Bush traveled to New York for his speech Sept. 12 to the U.N. General Assembly, accompanied by Powell and Rice, that language was inserted into the speech suggesting that Washington would seek a new U.N. resolution on Iraq. That wording was not in versions of the closely held speech that had circulated to top officials in Washington.

Over the next two months, Bush stuck to the strategy, although he frequently expressed impatience at the slow-moving U.N. wordsmithing.

At a pivotal meeting of top White House advisers Monday, Powell won approval for a few more minor U.S. concessions that helped seal the deal.

The final weekend of negotiations had taken place in a nonstop flurry of international phone calls, including one Powell took on his cell phone from French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin as he prepared to walk down the aisle at his daughter's wedding last Saturday. Powell and de Villepin haggled over the key issue of what it would take to trigger military action against Iraq.

Once France sealed its agreement in a call between Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, a gleeful Powell delivered the news late Thursday to Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov of Russia, the last major holdout.

Ivanov asked for time to report to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He called Powell back Friday morning, less than a hour before the Security Council was to meet at 10 a.m. EST.

Ivanov summed up Russia's change of position in two words: "OK. Yes."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this repot.)

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(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Colin Powell.

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