UNITED NATIONS -- France and Russia appeared ready Thursday to accept a compromise resolution that says the U.S. will consult with the Security Council -- but not have to wait for its authorization -- before taking military action if Iraq blocks weapons inspectors.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said that he believes there are "favorable conditions" for council agreement. Although France had not formally accepted the U.S. compromise, reportedly holding out for a few changes in the draft, diplomats thought that there would be agreement soon. French diplomats declined to comment, but others close to the process said Paris had informally signaled its acceptance.
"Their instinct is to push for more," said a council diplomat, "but they won't let that kill the deal."
Conversations with French and Russian colleagues "are going well," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was in New York for a scheduled speech but spent the day lobbying Security Council ambassadors by phone and meeting with the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix. After the meetings, a senior State Department official sounded optimistic that five weeks of negotiations were finally coming to a close. "Everyone is feeling now we're in the homestretch," the official said. "We've rounded the bend."
The resolution proposed by the U.S. is a deliberately ambiguous compromise that allows its main opponent on the council, France, to take credit for keeping the U.S. from acting without the U.N. Although the United States would prefer U.N. backing, the language of the draft also ensures that it would not have to win a second Security Council resolution to authorize a strike.
"The United States does not need any additional authority, even now, to take action to defend ourselves," Powell said. Any resolution that emerges, he added, would preserve the right of the U.S. to act in concert with other nations "even though the U.N. would not wish to act."
The French have been insisting on a two-step process designed to keep the U.S. from launching a strike as soon as weapons inspectors run into trouble in Iraq. The first resolution, under the French proposal, would strengthen the inspectors' mandate and grant them immediate access to any site in Iraq. If the inspectors were impeded, the French would require a second resolution to approve war. In the last week, however, French diplomats have amended their criteria to a "second meeting, not necessarily a resolution," paving the way for compromise.
The U.S. formula falls between its demand for a single resolution and the French preference for two -- resulting, in effect, in a step and a half.
The U.S. draft calls for the Security Council to convene immediately if the chief weapons inspectors report "any failure by Iraq to comply with its disarmament obligations, including its obligations regarding inspections." The council would then "consider the situation" -- and, the U.S. hopes -- declare Iraq in further "material breach."
A second resolution authorizing action would be welcome but not necessary, U.S. officials insist. The declaration of "material breach," a U.S. official said, would signal adequate multilateral support for the U.S. to act without the formality of a resolution.
"The French don't oppose military action if Iraq fails to cooperate with inspectors," a council diplomat said. "They just don't want the U.S. to go off on its own. The U.S. has said it will consult with the council, but it doesn't want to be bound by it."
The U.S. draft represents a careful compromise, not only with the Security Council but also with demands of hard-liners in the Bush administration. Although French diplomats say they dislike the demand for "consequences" -- implying but not specifying military action -- in the draft, the U.S. insists on keeping the term.
Powell described "consequences" as one of the key elements of the resolution. A resolution must make "clear that Iraq has been in violation -- in material breach -- of U.N. resolutions for a long period of time," he said. Inspectors must go in with "more powerful instructions and with much more support. And third, there must be a threat -- consequences for their continued failure" to comply.
Elliott Abrams, special presidential advisor, accompanied Ambassador John D. Negroponte to the Security Council chamber today, reminding other ambassadors by his presence that the more hawkish elements within the Bush administration limit the U.S. wiggle room at the U.N.
"We've gone as far as we can go," said an official, who requested anonymity. "The hard-liners will not let us go any further. Just going back to the Security Council is problematic for them."
In the Security Council on Thursday, ambassadors from other nations lined up to voice their opinion in a debate that has left out most of them.