UNITED NATIONS -- After nearly two months of wrangling, the United States said it reached agreement with France on key provisions in an Iraq resolution and would present a third and final draft to the Security Council today.
U.S. officials said they were pushing for a vote by Friday and hoped that nearly all of the council's 15 members would agree with their "core demands": that weapons inspections must be more effective, and that if Iraq does not cooperate, it will face "serious consequences" -- probably a military attack.
French officials said they would reserve their assessment until President Jacques Chirac had a chance to review the entire text, not just the paragraphs that have been under debate.
Though still a work in progress, a draft resolution obtained by The Times on Tuesday evening appears to address some of the concerns raised by France, Russia and other members by giving the Security Council the authority to decide whether military force against Iraq is justified. It does not say that the U.S. must wait for a council decision to strike.
"It is a masterpiece of creative ambiguity," said a council diplomat who requested anonymity because not all the council members had seen the revised text. "It delineates what it needs to, but more important is what it doesn't say."
France's main concern has been the "trigger" for force: how to determine whether Iraq has violated the terms of weapons inspections, and who shall decide what the consequences should be. France and others have wanted to ensure that the U.S. would not decide on its own to bomb Iraq after passing the resolution and then say it was done with the approval of the Security Council. France, Russia, Mexico and others are adamant that only the council can declare Iraq in "material breach" of the resolution and authorize a punitive attack.
Although diplomats exchanged variations on wording for days to try to capture the precise legal terminology, they agreed in the end to rely on a few tweaks.
The draft resolution declares that "Iraq has been and remains in material breach" of past U.N. resolutions requiring it to disarm, but it gives Baghdad "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations." Weapons inspectors would report any failures to cooperate or comply with the terms of the new resolution to the Security Council, which would then decide on the consequences.
After a day of phone calls to British, French and Russian foreign ministers, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin, reached a last-minute understanding on key sticking points Tuesday evening.
"It's been a very healthy dose of good, solid diplomacy, backed up by a clear understanding that President Bush was determined to take action if the United Nations did not, and that he would do so in a multilateral way," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters on Air Force One earlier Tuesday.
But Russia remains a wild card. If Moscow does not accept the U.S.-French compromise, it could pull the French away from the U.S., bringing others along. In the vote on a 1999 resolution creating the new weapons inspection regime, Russia decided to abstain, and France, China and Malaysia followed at the last minute. The division in the council undermined the strength of the message to Baghdad, and Iraq's allies began to defy the U.N.'s sanctions regime.
Though U.S. officials say that a few abstentions may be the price for a resolution tough enough to be successful, they would still like to have a show of unity on the council.
But even after weeks of talks, questions remain. What constitutes a material breach? Leaving something off the list of declared materiel? Stalling inspectors?
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has said that even a two-hour delay of inspectors must be considered a violation, because it would allow sufficient time to hide evidence or destroy documents, as Iraqi officials have done in the past. Other council members, though, might not be willing to go to war over an incomplete list.
"If these questions go unresolved, France and Russia might reject the resolution," a council diplomat said. "If the United States demands the opportunity to use force if it chooses to, the Russians will have great difficulty dealing with that."
The resolution requires that Iraq declare its entire arsenal of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons materiel within 30 days, including items that have other industrial uses. It still includes a controversial provision to take Iraqi weapons experts and their families out of the country for interviews to avoid intimidation by the Iraqi government. But U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has questioned the measure's practicality -- how many family members and colleagues would the U.N. need to take for each expert, and once they left, would they face even more harassment upon their return? Or would they automatically become refugees?
On the recommendation of Blix and Mohammed Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the draft drops two other U.S. proposals on inspections. One would have allowed any of the five permanent Security Council members to send their own experts on inspection teams. The other called for armed guards to accompany inspectors to sites. The draft still calls for security forces for the inspectors' facilities.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang on Air Force One and Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.