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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Inspection Report Firms Up Council's Opposition to War

Blix and ElBaradei give a mixed assessment of Iraq's progress. U.S. says it may soon present a resolution to authorize force against Baghdad.

February 15, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Security Council members resoundingly endorsed continued inspections in Iraq on Friday, encouraged by the chief U.N. weapons monitors' reports of qualified progress in recent weeks.

The outcome was a disappointment to U.S. officials, who had hoped that the reports would sway key countries toward supporting war against Iraq, but diplomats said the U.S. and Britain might forge ahead next week with a resolution seeking to authorize military force against Saddam Hussein.

The two inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, criticized Iraq's level of compliance -- nearly every offer of cooperation has had some form of condition attached -- but they also implicitly criticized the quality of evidence presented by the U.S. and others.

Many council members appeared to stiffen their opposition to a war.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin led the resistance, asking for another inspection report March 14, weeks after Washington had hoped to have resolved the issue.

His impassioned speech transcended the immediate question of how to disarm Iraq to address how the world should confront its many threats, now and in the future.

"In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience," De Villepin told the council. "No one can assert today that the path of war will be shorter than the path of the inspections.

"No one can claim that it would lead to a safer, more just, more stable world. For war is always the sanction of failure. Would this be our sole recourse in the face of the many challenges at this time? So let us give the United Nations inspectors the time they need for their mission to succeed."

The Security Council chamber echoed with applause after his speech, an acclaim that started in the galleries and moved through the foreign ministers and ambassadors sitting around the council's horseshoe table.

Applause also greeted Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov's appeals for peaceful disarmament. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was acting as president of the council, gaveled for order, saying that such undiplomatic outbreaks could not be permitted, "even on Valentine's Day."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell discarded his prepared speech and spoke furiously about the risks of inaction.

"The security of the region, the hopes for the people of Iraq themselves and our security rest upon us meeting our responsibilities," Powell said.

Iraq had strung out the issue long enough, he said, and "cannot be allowed to get away with it again."

"Force should always be a last resort," Powell said. "I have preached this for most of my professional life, as a soldier and as a diplomat. But it must be a resort."

Before the briefing, U.S. officials said they hoped to present a resolution as early as this morning if they felt they had gained ground after the report. Afterward, they insisted they would go forward with their plans but needed to discuss the timing in Washington and with leaders of other countries.

U.S. and British diplomats said they would have the resolution ready next week and would be willing to risk a veto rather than delay action.

The White House has argued that unless Iraq provided full cooperation, more time and more inspectors would not make a difference.

The United States and Britain said they were losing patience, and, even though French and Russian leaders have signaled that they would use their vetoes to stop a war they consider premature, U.S. diplomats said they were willing to risk it.

"We'll take a veto," said a U.S. official. "We're certainly not going to sacrifice American peace and security because France and Russia are unwilling to make the tough decisions."

The United States and Britain are hoping that their challengers won't reject a resolution outright but will instead abstain. As long as the resolution passes, even halfheartedly, they will gain the much needed benediction of the council to win popular backing. But they hadn't counted on the resistance spreading to the rest of the Security Council.

Bulgaria and Spain support the U.S. and British position, but the rest of the 10 rotating council members are discussing a coordinated abstention to kill a resolution.

To pass, a resolution must receive nine votes and no vetoes from the five permanent council members. Some of the council members say a mass rejection of a resolution would send a stronger message than a single veto, while absolving them from individual responsibility for causing a resolution to fail.

Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Douri, said Baghdad had cooperated completely with inspectors -- which, he added, might have disappointed states hoping for Iraqi obstruction.

"Some would wish Iraq obstructed inspections, closed doors," he said. "But this did not and will not happen because Iraq genuinely decided to prove that it is free of weapons of mass destruction."

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