UNITED NATIONS—The climactic phase of the Iraq crisis opened Monday as the United States, Britain and Spain introduced a brief, blunt resolution to the United Nations. The key phrase: "Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it."
France, Germany and Russia—which oppose immediate military action—offered a counterproposal that calls for up to four more months of weapons inspections and progress reports every three weeks.
"War is always the worst of solutions," said French President Jacques Chirac.
But in the Persian Gulf, elsewhere in southwest Asia and within the Bush administration, preparations for military conflict gained momentum and a sense of inevitability grew:
_Facing a Saturday U.N. deadline to destroy scores of prohibited missiles, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein indicated that he would not comply—an action that could cause France and other opponents of an attack on Iraq to reconsider their position.
"We do not have missiles that go beyond the prescribed range," Saddam said during an interview with CBS News anchor Dan Rather.
U.N. arms inspectors say he does and he must destroy them.
Saddam also challenged President Bush to an internationally televised debate like those conducted during U.S. presidential elections, but the White House dismissed the suggestion.
_Turkey moved more of its soldiers to its border with northern Iraq and its cabinet approved the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops onto Turkish soil.
The U.S. forces, waiting on ships in the eastern Mediterranean, would form the bulk of a "northern front" that could be sent southward from Turkey to squeeze Saddam's troops in northern Iraq.
_A senior U.S. official said that "all necessary elements" of an attack on Iraq will be in place by March 7, when chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix is scheduled to deliver his next oral report to the U.N. Security Council.
That means the United States and Britain will be ready to launch a war against Iraq by detonating an aerial blitzkrieg within a week following Blix's report, said the official, who requested anonymity.
"We are on the verge of war," acknowledged White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the White House that the only hope for a diplomatic solution at this point would be a decision by Saddam to go into exile. She said she is not aware of any progress on that option.
Fleischer also made a point of mentioning "regime change in Iraq" as an objective equal in importance to disarmament.
"The president has always said that we're not going to leave the same people in charge of Iraq," he said.
Increasingly, however, it appeared that the United States and Britain may have to go to war without explicit U.N. backing and with a much smaller coalition than President Bush's father assembled in 1990 to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
A vote on the new resolution presented to the15-member Security Council by the United States, Britain and Spain may not come for nearly two weeks—perhaps immediately after Blix's March 7 oral report.
To pass, it must attract nine votes and avoid a veto from any of the five permanent members—France, China, Russia, Britain and the United States. But apart from the resolution's three co-sponsors, only Bulgaria has expressed solid support for the proposal.
Asked Monday if France would use its veto, Chirac called the question hypothetical and refused to answer. In Beijing, where Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Chinese leaders, observers said China may simply abstain from the vote, hoping to not aggravate relations with the United States.
The U.S.-British-Spanish proposal does not mention a deadline or explicitly threaten war. But if it somehow wins approval from the council, it would open the way for member states to deliver the "serious consequences"—diplomatic code for war—threatened last November in U.N. Resolution 1441.
Meanwhile, two key moments rapidly approached:
_Saturday, March 1, is the U.N. deadline for Iraq to destroy its Al Samoud 2 missiles and 380 imported rocket engines.
It also is the deadline for another written interim progress report by Blix, one that could foreshadow the more significant oral report he will deliver six days later. Aides said Blix still carries a list of 30 unresolved questions about Iraqi disarmament.
He already has concluded that the missiles and imported engines are prohibited, and he has ordered them destroyed. The missiles can reach 20 miles farther than the 93-mile range set by the council in 1991, Blix said.
Iraqi leaders said early Monday that they were drafting a reply to Blix's order and were open to negotiations. Blix said his order was nonnegotiable.
"We would expect (Iraq) to accept what we have said and to destroy the missiles as we have stated," Blix said at U.N. headquarters.
Nevertheless, many experts expected Iraq to destroy the missiles eventually, an action that would appeal to the French, Germans, Russians and other critics of the Bush administration and could help soften Blix's subsequent reports.
"We may be outmaneuvered on the Al Samouds," said a second administration official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It probably was a mistake to make a big deal out of something Saddam can live without."
Friday, March 7, is the date set for the next oral presentations to the Security Council by Blix and fellow arms inspector Mohamed ElBaradei.
U.S. officials said they would not press for a vote on the new resolution until those oral reports are made. Observers expect a vote later that day or the following week.
The vote is expected to end the diplomatic phase of the crisis, at least at the United Nations, and could clear the way for war.
National Security Adviser Rice underscored Bush's determination to act, regardless of the outcome at the United Nations.
"The president of the United States believes very strongly that the American people are under threat, that American security interests are under threat, and that world peace and security are threatened by Saddam Hussein," she said. "No one should underestimate the importance of this issue for the United States."
Rice predicted that Saddam would try to influence the U.N. vote by taking additional steps to cooperate.
"Whenever he's under tremendous pressure, he puts forward a little cooperation It's not going to be acceptable this time," she said.
The one-page resolution submitted by the United States and its allies summarized key elements of Resolution 1441 and concludes by having the council decide "that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in Resolution 1441."
The memorandum circulated by France, Russia and Germany states that to "render possible a peaceful solution, inspections should be given the necessary time and resources. However, they cannot continue indefinitely. Iraq must disarm."
It adds that the "combination of a clear program of action, reinforced inspections, a clear timeline and the military build-up provide a realistic means to reunite the Security Council and to exert maximum pressure on Iraq."
French diplomats said the counterproposal can be implemented under existing U.N. resolutions.
In Ankara, the Turkish cabinet approved U.S. troop deployment and sent the measure to the Turkish parliament, which is expected to endorse the action Tuesday.
In the coming days, as the U.S. ground forces come ashore at the Turkish ports of Mersin and Iskendurun, additional U.S. forces are likely to be sent to several large air bases in Turkey, particularly at Incirlik, Diyarbakir and Batman. More U.S. surveillance, cargo and attack aircraft also are expected to be transferred to Turkey.
Several thousand Air Force personnel are already stationed in Turkey, many of them at Incirlik, where they help enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq.
The main coalition ground attack would be launched into southern Iraq by U.S. and British troops now stationed in Kuwait.
The negotiating over new U.S. troops being sent to Turkey had been tough and protracted, and more than one Turkish political commentator compared it to the shrewd haggling over a Turkish carpet in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
The only predominantly Muslim member of NATO and the only country in the alliance to border Iraq, Turkey pressed Washington for large and specific pledges of assistance.
The final aid package is expected to total $15 billion in economic and military grants, guaranteed loans, relaxations in U.S. trade rules, and a write-down of Turkey's military debt.
Turkish authorities also have been wrangling over the number and role of their own troops that might be sent into northern Iraq.
Ankara wants to flood the zone with tens of thousands of soldiers—perhaps as many as 100,000—who would operate under Turkish commanders. The United States prefers a smaller Turkish force, perhaps under a joint command, that would come into Iraq behind the invading coalition ground forces.
The Turkish military has already begun moving sizable forces toward the Iraqi border—tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy guns and commando units. A new convoy arrived Monday, under cover of darkness, in the key border town of Silopi.
(Ibarguen reported from the United Nations, McDonald from Ankara and Merzer, of the Miami Herald, from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Michael Dorgan in Beijing, Ron Hutcheson at the White House and Daniel Rubin in Paris also contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030224 UNIRAQ