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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

U.S. in a Protracted Battle on the Diplomatic Front

Allies are not falling into line as Washington weighs prospects for a new resolution on Iraq.

February 15, 2003|Paul Richter and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — The rebuff delivered Friday to the United States in the Security Council may not alter President Bush's determination to forcibly disarm Iraq, but it signaled that he will pay a higher diplomatic price than he may have expected.

The previous report by U.N. weapons inspectors built momentum for the U.S.-British effort to take on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. This one shifted it in favor of those arguing for continued weapons inspections.

And the emphatic rejection of American arguments by the French, Russians and Chinese suggested that some U.S. officials badly miscalculated when they predicted privately that resistance to a resolution authorizing war would fade this week.

"This quarter of the game hasn't been a good one for the United States," said James Lindsay, a former National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "President Bush's father used to talk about 'Big Mo,' but the U.S. doesn't have momentum now."

The administration has assumed that the French would eventually join the United States in any military action against Iraq to preserve their influence in a war and its aftermath. That still may happen.

But after French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin's speech Friday -- which drew unusual applause from other Security Council members -- it seems less certain.

The U.S. delegation seemed to be caught by surprise when chief weapons inspector Hans Blix challenged a portion of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation this month on purported Iraqi violations. Blix had been urged by U.S. officials to condemn the level of Iraqi compliance with weapons inspections; instead, he painted a mixed picture and talked of the potential benefits of further inspections.

After the council meeting, U.S. officials appeared divided about what course they would take next. Some U.S. officials say they still intend to offer a resolution that would find Iraq in breach of Security Council resolutions. Privately, U.S. and British officials have said they might be willing to risk a veto if only one or two members, such as France, voted against them.

Diplomats at the United Nations said Friday that the U.S. and especially Britain may calculate that defeat is preferable to spending more time in what well may be fruitless negotiations.

They could then say that they tried their best to engage the U.N.'s support but were thwarted by "an unreasonable veto," a phrase that has been popping up in official British rhetoric over the past two weeks.

But the diplomatic cost to the United States and Britain would be higher if a number of countries lined up against them at the council. Some diplomats said Friday that even if no one cast a veto, the resolution could still fail.

Several nonpermanent members of the council were considering uniting in abstention to subvert a U.S.-British resolution, diplomats said. Such a move would seem a condemnation of U.S. policy. And it would also doom the resolution: Nine votes, and no veto from a permanent member of the 15-member council, are needed for it to pass.

But other U.S. officials said the course had not yet been chosen. Among these was Powell, who said there would be discussions with Bush and other senior officials over the weekend.

A senior administration official confirmed Friday night that the White House and National Security Council had not yet had a full discussion of the outcome of the U.N. session or decided on their next move.

Spain and Bulgaria are expected to side with the United States and Britain, but Cameroon, Guinea, Angola, Mexico, Chile and Pakistan have joined France, Russia and China in declaring they want to exhaust all possibilities for a peaceful solution before resorting to force. Syria and Germany, neither of them permanent members of the council, are expected to vote against a resolution authorizing action.

Even without council assent, the U.S. would have support, if not military contributions, from several countries. These include many states in Central and Eastern Europe, which want to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and be considered part of the West, and small Persian Gulf states that fear Iraq.

But without the broad international support that a Security Council resolution embodies, public opinion in some of these states could turn against war and force their leaders to withdraw commitments of help.

Friday's clash at the U.N. also underscored growing signs that the conflict between the United States and Europe over Iraq is one of the most serious between the Allies since World War II.

During the Cold War, the United States and Europe had rifts, but they were usually overcome by the partners' need to hang together against the threat posed by the Soviet Union.

"There used to be a natural limit to how much the two sides could spit at each other," said Lindsay, the Brookings analyst. "Now we're in dangerous and uncharted territory.''

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Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.

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