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U.N. Haggling Over Iraq All but Ended, U.S. Says

Officials express confidence that Security Council will pass the American version of a resolution on action against Baghdad.

November 01, 2002|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS -- Preparing for the endgame on how to confront Iraq, the U.S. claimed Thursday that it has won two key swing votes on the Security Council -- Ireland and Mauritius -- giving it the necessary majority to pass its resolution.

"We're done," a U.S. official said. "We are confident that we have a majority, and we are looking to end the diplomatic process next week."

U.S. officials say they will present a new resolution next week incorporating council members' suggestions and that they hope to have a vote by the week after next at the latest. But they made clear that the U.S. will reserve the right to take unilateral action against Iraq even without fresh Security Council approval.

"Our bottom line has not changed," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday. "We think it's time to resolve these differences and it's time to pass a resolution."

The announcement is meant to put further pressure on France, the United States' most vocal challenger in the council on the Iraq issue.

France so far has enjoyed the support of most of the council's 15 members for its two-stage plan on disarming Iraq, which proposes that the council pass a resolution strengthening the weapons inspections regime but requiring that it would have to meet again to decide on action if Iraq is found to be in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions.

This week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his French and Russian counterparts have been in constant contact, sending phrases from the resolution back and forth to try and reach a compromise. France and Russia have tentatively agreed to include the words "material breach" as long as the phrase does not explicitly authorize automatic use of force. They insist on further wording that guarantees that the Security Council, not the U.S. alone, decides if an attack is warranted.

But although the two sides are only a few words away from agreement, they are still a world apart, observers say.

"The difference is knowing whether the gun you are pointing is loaded or not," a council diplomat said. "When the difference is war and peace, you want to know if there is a hidden trigger."

In weeks of negotiations, both sides say they have made many concessions. The first text the U.S. floated was so tough, many diplomats said it was "designed to fail." The latest U.S. version has dropped demands for the use of "all necessary means" against Iraq, among other concessions. The French, in turn, have given up their demand for a second resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, settling instead for a less formal Security Council decision.

The latest U.S. concessions appear to be close enough for Irish diplomats, although they wouldn't say for sure whether they have signed on to the U.S. side after weeks of waiting.

"There's only a phrase or two separating each side -- although small words involve big issues," said Ireland's deputy ambassador, Gerard Corr. Ireland has said it wanted the U.S. to return to the Security Council for approval before taking military action. "The text as it now looks substantially addresses our concerns."

The ambassador from Mauritius, Jagdish Koonjul, has been playing it cool at the council, publicly remaining undecided and elevating attention to his tiny nation as a sought-after swing vote.

But at home, his diplomatic equivocation made headlines after the Mauritian Council of Ministers decided to definitively back the U.S. position. A foreign aid agreement with the U.S. stipulates that Mauritius does not "engage in activities that undermine the United States national security or foreign policy interests."

A U.S. official said Washington counts Mauritius squarely in its camp. "They've come fully aboard," he said.

For a resolution to pass, it needs nine votes from the full council and no vetoes from the five permanent members -- the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia. The latest U.S. count includes Britain, Norway, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Ireland, Mauritius and probably Singapore and Guinea on its side, and leaves France, China, Russia, and Syria firmly on the other side. Mexico says it remains in the middle, although the U.S. has said it is confident of winning its vote.

France and Russia are no longer hinting at using a veto to block the U.S. resolution. But if they can sway enough of the council members to abstain from a vote, it would send a clear signal of council division.

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