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Nearing Unity on Inspections

United Nations: France, a frequent critic of U.S. strategy toward Iraq, agrees that clear, new rules are needed in the hunt for weapons.


"When it comes to defending our freedom, the United States of America will stand united and stand strong," Bush told a meeting of Latino leaders in Washington. "The choice is up [to] the United Nations to show its resolve."

But there were also softer elements to his rhetoric Thursday.

"The military option is my last choice, not my first. It's my last choice," Bush said. "But Saddam has got to understand, the United Nations must know, that the will of this country is strong."

In the last few days, the White House has all but dropped references to the need for "regime change" in Iraq, stressing instead that ensuring the Persian Gulf nation has no weapons of mass destruction is the goal, and use of force the last resort to achieve it.

Coupled with this rhetoric, the Bush administration is quietly exploring a backup strategy for winning a U.N. resolution that would bridge the wide gap between the United States and its French and Russian partners on the Security Council, according to U.S. officials.

The compromise would more closely match the French approach that the Security Council should pass a resolution now governing a tough new regime of weapons inspections but put off passage of a second measure that would authorize the use of force.

Rather than wait until there is a so-called material breach to discuss the terms, Washington is probing the possibility of locking in agreement now on the specific language of a resolution that spells out the consequences--and then in effect shelving it unless there is a showdown over inspections.

The critical difference is timing. France, many in the Arab world and other U.N. members want to defer the issue of force, a position that U.S. officials reject on two counts:

* Washington believes that weapons inspectors will have no leverage over Iraq unless the threat of force looms.

* A measure now that does not approve the use of force could lead to another, potentially time-consuming diplomatic clash some months down the road.

"It's critically important not to lose the current momentum," said a well-placed administration official, who requested anonymity.

Baghdad's goal, U.S. officials say, is to try to stall until late March, when extremely hot weather in the region begins to limit military options. The working assumption in Washington is that if Iraq can stall until March, it may have bought eight more months.

The inter-agency group handling Iraq strategy has not yet blessed the compromise option, U.S. officials say. But American and British envoys have been working on it as a fallback position.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer on Thursday declined to repeat previous remarks that the French proposal for two resolutions was unacceptable. And he was careful to describe regime change as a policy adopted by Congress. Fleischer also declined to confirm that the administration has shifted its stance, replying that negotiations over a possible U.N. resolution are secret.

Fleischer suggested that the president's position may have shifted--in private.

"How do you know the president has not moved?" he asked. "I submit to you that much of these negotiations are, as you would expect, diplomatic conversations that take place in private."

In Paris, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated the words of President Jacques Chirac, who on Wednesday night spoke forcefully in favor of his nation's two-step approach. The French leader was joined at the presidential palace in Paris by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose criticism of potential military action against Iraq has annoyed the Bush administration.

"We are indeed hostile to any resolution that grants an automatic character to a military intervention," Chirac said Wednesday.

The French believe that U.N. inspections have a realistic chance of working.

"Above all, we want Iraq to be stripped of any arms of mass destruction and that this be controlled without any ambiguity," Chirac said.

In Moscow, Saltanov, the deputy foreign minister, declared that any move toward military action against Baghdad must wait until inspectors make their initial report.

"The document presented to us by the Britons and the Americans has only strengthened our confidence in the correctness of our stance favoring the earliest relaunch of inspections and monitoring activities in Iraq, and a general political settlement without the use of force," Saltanov said.

He added that unilateral military action by the United States would undermine "international legal fundamentals" which "enable civilized settlement of modern problems."


Marshall reported from the United Nations and Wright from Washington. Times staff writers Janet Hook and Maura Reynolds in Washington, John Daniszewski in Moscow, Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Sebastian Rotella in Paris contributed to this report.

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