UNITED NATIONS (AP) – With a French veto now a certainty and other support still in question, the United States and Britain were forced yesterday to delay a Security Council vote to set March 17 as the deadline for Iraq to disarm – or face destruction.

The United States had hoped to present the resolution to the council today. But despite an urgent phone campaign waged by President Bush, it was evident that America and its allies had not yet picked up the nine votes they needed for a majority.

But even nine votes wouldn’t be enough. French President Jacques Chirac declared that his country would veto any resolution that opened the way to war. The Russians also said they would vote against the proposal as it was currently worded.

Behind the scenes, diplomats were discussing compromises, including extending the deadline and adding a list of tests – or “benchmarks,” as they are called – that the Iraqis must pass to prove their disarmament and cooperation.

Both the United States and Britain said they were willing to negotiate both the deadline and other changes to the resolution.

Some of the uncommitted countries were talking about delaying the deadline a month, until April 17 – though it was clear that such a proposal stood no chance with the United States, as hundreds of thousands of American soldiers awaited their orders in the Persian Gulf.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said a vote on the resolution will not come today. He said consultations were ongoing and a vote could come anytime later in the week.

“The vote will be the day we get nine or 10 votes, and I think we’re getting close,” said Spanish Ambassador Inocencio Arias, whose country is cosponsoring the resolution with the United States and Britain.

But on the surface, at least, yesterday was not a good day for the coalition’s efforts.

Pakistan’s prime minister said for the first time publicly that his country, a key swing vote on the council, wouldn’t support war with Iraq. And Chile, another vote which Washington is after, suggested it is not prepared to approve the resolution without changes.

“We know our vote in the council is very important, and that’s why we seek a different alternative to the resolution proposed last Friday,” said Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear.

The resolution – which authorizes war anytime after March 17 unless Iraq proves before then that it has disarmed – requires nine “yes” votes. Approval also requires that France, Russia and China withhold their vetoes – either by abstaining or voting in favor.

The United States is assured the support of Britain, Spain and Bulgaria, with Cameroon and Mexico leaning heavily toward the U.S. position.

But with Germany, Syria and now Pakistan preparing abstentions or “no” votes, Washington is left trying to canvass the support of Chile, Angola and Guinea.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair struggled to head off a growing revolt within his own party unhappy with his Iraq policy. A third of the Labor Party lawmakers are already on record opposing Blair’s pro-U.S. stance, and yesterday his International Development secretary, Clare Short, threatened to quit over the issue.

Noting the pressure at home and at the United Nations, Blair said he was open to a compromise.

“We are talking to all the other countries about how we ensure that we can make a proper judgment about whether Saddam is cooperating or not,” he said.

“What people are asking us to do is define more precisely for them, to define what it is that would allow us to say, ‘Yes, he is cooperating,’ or not.”

One example, Blair said, would be whether Iraq was allowing inspectors to interview scientists outside the country.

Diplomats said the benchmarks could be presented in the form of a presidential statement – a diplomatic text that everyone in the council could sign on to whether they supported the resolution or not.

The council was briefly united in November when it passed Resolution 1441, creating new powers for weapons inspectors and warning Iraq to accept a final opportunity to disarm or face serious consequences.

The United States and Britain believe Saddam Hussein has failed to meet those tests. Their resolution would authorize a war unless he can convince the council before March 17 that he has fully disarmed.

If the resolution is defeated, Bush and Blair have said they would be prepared to go to war anyway with a coalition of willing nations. But U.N. support would give the war international legitimacy and guarantee that members of the organization share the costs of rebuilding Iraq.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking in the Netherlands, said: “If the United States and others would go outside the council and take military action, it will not be in conformity with the charter.”

“The legitimacy and support of any such action will be seriously impaired,” he said.

But the White House argued the opposite Monday, saying a lack of support would hurt U.N. credibility.

If the United Nations fails to act, Fleischer said in Washington, “that means the United Nations will not be the international body that disarms Saddam Hussein. Another international body will disarm Saddam Hussein. So this will remain an international action, it’s just the United Nations will have chosen to put itself on the sidelines.”

But France and Russia seemed undeterred, saying yesterday they would oppose the U.S.-backed resolution.

“No matter what the circumstances, France will vote ‘no,'” Chirac said in a televised interview in France yesterday. “There is no cause for war to achieve the objective that we fixed – the disarmament of Iraq.

His foreign minister was meeting top Angolan officials yesterday at the start of a quick trip to lobby the undecided African members of the council.

In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister also indicated his country would veto the current resolution.

“If the draft resolution that currently has been introduced for consideration and which contains demands in an ultimative form that cannot be met is nonetheless put to a vote then Russia will vote against this resolution,” Igor Ivanov said, according to the Interfax news agency.

A French or Russian “no” vote would not go down in history as a veto if they were voting with the majority of nine needed to defeat the U.S.-backed measure.

Facing the veto threats, Bush made an urgent round of phone calls to world leaders trying to salvage the resolution ahead of Security Council consultations late yesterday. Among those who received presidential calls

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