UNITED NATIONS—The United States clashed sharply Monday with its would-be allies over possible military action against Iraq in what could be a preview of a U.N. Security Council meeting next week, when weapons inspectors are to issue a key report.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing a meeting on combating terrorism, urged fellow leaders not to shrink from contemplating the use of force against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"We cannot be shocked into impotence because we're afraid of the difficult choices that are ahead of us," Powell said.
His tough words reflected the Bush administration's determination not to let the 2-month-old inspections process play out much longer, on the grounds that Saddam has shown no sign of fully relinquishing his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. Instead, Washington wants the Security Council to debate what to do next, including the option of military action.
But Powell was virtually alone in insisting that Saddam is guilty unless proven innocent, and that the time is near to consider war on Iraq.
Iraq made the U.S. case harder Monday with an offer of greater cooperation, just one week before the inspectors' report on the first two months of renewed weapons inspections. The government promised to encourage its scientists to talk with U.N. inspectors in private and said it would turn over more documents and clarify others. The Iraqi government also announced it would form its own teams to search for banned weapons.
"We believe today nothing justifies envisaging military action," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said Monday. France holds the rotating council presidency in January.
De Villepin urged the United States not to act in Iraq without international backing.
"Unilateral military intervention will be perceived as a victory for the law of the strongest," he said.
While France has long been cautious about using force to disarm Saddam, de Villepin's words telegraphed France's apparent determination to block any U.S. move to get U.N. authorization for war.
France—along with China, Russia, Britain and the United States—holds veto power in the Security Council.
China and Germany agreed Monday with the French position. Germany takes over the presidency of the Security Council in February. They argued that the inspections are working to contain Saddam's ambitions, but need more time, and that war could destabilize the Middle East and wreck cooperation in the fight against international terrorism.
"We are greatly concerned that a military strike against the regime in Baghdad would involve considerable and unpredictable risks for the global fight against terrorism," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
That, along with "disastrous consequences for long-term regional stability," Fischer said, "are fundamental reasons for our rejection of military action."
Powell countered, "We cannot fail to take the action that may be necessary because we are afraid of what others might do."
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix is due to give the council a report Jan. 27. The document, which council members will debate two days later, is expected to say that unanswered questions remain about Iraq's weapons programs. Blix has asked for more time to conduct inspections.
The dispute over potential military action could leave President Bush with an unpalatable choice.
He might have to delay an invasion of Iraq, despite a steadily growing U.S. troop buildup in the Persian Gulf region, or act without United Nations backing, which many Americans and world leaders say they oppose.
One possible compromise would give Baghdad a new deadline to fill gaps in its description of its weapons programs.
The United States and many others on the 15-nation Security Council are looking at the Jan. 27 date from nearly opposite viewpoints. Many countries see it as the opening stage of expanded weapons inspections meant to disarm Iraq peacefully.
"I believe this report actually is not a full stop of the inspection work but rather a new beginning," said Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan.
But Powell and other U.S. officials have said the report will mark the beginning of a "final phase" to disarm Saddam, and they will make a strong case that the Iraqi leader never will comply with inspections voluntarily.
At Powell's meetings in New York on Sunday and Monday, he found wide agreement that "that the Iraqis have not been in compliance," said an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But de Villepin said that if the use of force were proposed, "The first question we would ask (is) what is the legitimacy of such an action? The second question we would ask is what is the effectiveness of that operation?"
Citing the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program, the French minister warned against setting a precedent in Iraq. "If war is the only way to resolve this problem, we are going down a dead end," he said.
The Bush administration this week is ramping up efforts to make a case for war. A mix of diplomatic activity and high-profile speeches is intended to lay the groundwork for Bush's State of the Union speech Jan. 28.
The growing antiwar movement at home and increasing resistance from U.S. allies overseas seem to have had little impact on the president's inner circle.
A White House spokesman expressed confidence that most Americans support Bush's hard-line approach toward Iraq, despite weekend protests by tens of thousands of people.
"The president welcomes the fact that we are a democracy, and people in the United States, unlike Iraq, are free to protest," White House spokesman Taylor Gross said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush felt an obligation to explain the need for military action if he decided it was necessary.
Polls show that Americans support military action against Iraq, but only if the United States acts with an international coalition. Support turns to opposition if U.S. troops go into battle alone. Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, said Americans also wanted to know that Bush had run out of diplomatic options.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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