MAYPORT NAVAL STATION, Fla. — On the eve of a U.N. session that may determine whether the United States goes to war with many allies or a few, President Bush on Thursday challenged the United Nations to "rise to its responsibilities" to confront Iraq.
Speaking to sailors and other naval personnel here, Bush enumerated the countries and groups that have expressed support for military action against Iraq, and dared the U.N. Security Council to authorize military force or become an "ineffective, irrelevant debating society."
"I'm optimistic that free nations will show backbone and courage in the face of true threats to peace and freedom," Bush said.
"The decision is this for the United Nations: When you say something, does it mean anything? You've got to decide: If you lay down a resolution, does it mean anything?"
Bush's challenge was the latest in a series of administration jabs at the United Nations and at reluctant allies ahead of a pivotal presentation by the U.N.'s top weapons experts at the Security Council today.
Increasingly, the administration has portrayed efforts by France, Germany and Russia to block war as weakening both the United Nations and NATO. U.S. officials hope that their pressure, combined with what they hope will be a tough report from the weapons inspectors, will win a divided Security Council over to their view that the next step should be military action rather than more inspections.
France and Germany have been at the forefront of an effort to counter the U.S. move to war, arguing that between inaction and war lies a third option -- "robust" inspections. This week, France has been circulating an unofficial proposal at the Security Council for a stronger and more sustained inspection effort.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sought Thursday to strengthen Bush's arguments by citing evidence from the United Nations that Iraq has broken U.N. rules by developing missiles that exceed a range of 94 miles.
"This is a serious matter," Powell told the House Budget Committee in Washington. "It shows Iraqi noncompliance."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking in London earlier, said that if the reports on the missiles are true, they would be "very serious, because it would be not just a failure to declare and disclose information but a breach of Resolution 1441" that authorized the inspections in November.
Washington may seek to introduce a new resolution on military action as early as Saturday if it appears that the inspectors' report has swayed council members. But U.S. officials said they believe that a resolution is more likely to be introduced next week at the earliest.
As diplomatic efforts continued, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, met with senior White House and defense officials Thursday to finalize military plans, a spokesman said.
"From finalizing military plans to presenting options, everything Gen. Franks is doing right now is in support of ongoing diplomatic efforts," Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson said.
Also Thursday, Pentagon officials for the first time confirmed the frequently reported presence of Special Forces troops in parts of Iraq. While describing their numbers as small, a defense official said the elite troops have been moving in and out of the country for weeks, identifying targets and making contact with possible defectors from Iraqi military units.
"We're not the only U.S. government agency with people in there," a defense official added, apparently referring to CIA operatives who are known to be active in Iraq.
It remained unclear where in Iraq the Special Forces troops are active besides the north, where Kurds friendly to the United States control key territory. The defense official would not confirm or deny the presence of soldiers in southern Iraq.
In his speech to the troops Thursday, Bush listed allies that he said have already rallied to the U.S. position -- an "overwhelming majority" of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and "every nation of the Gulf Cooperation Council."
He expressed optimism that the Security Council will adopt the U.S. position.
"See, I believe when it's all said and done, free nations will not allow the United Nations to fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society," Bush said.
A senior U.S. official said there was little doubt that today's progress report from Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, would again show stubborn Iraqi resistance to disarmament.
"Blix is going to report that he doesn't have the genuine cooperation of the Iraqis," he said, "and then the council's going to have to decide whether they want to be with us or not."