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Friday, March 7

French reject U.S. deadline for Iraq

By John Yaukey

WASHINGTON - The United Nations Security Council remained deeply divided over authorizing war on Iraq on Friday despite an 11th-hour proposal by the United States and Britain to give Saddam Hussein until March 17 to disarm or face invasion.

Before Friday, the United States was seeking a resolution from the council declaring that Iraq had failed in its final chance to disarm and that "serious consequences" were warranted. It offered no deadlines or final opportunities to disarm.

The deadline proposal surfaced after a much-anticipated report to the Security Council by U.N. weapons inspectors, who said Iraq is improving its cooperation and that disarmament could be done in months.

France, which leads a contingent on the council that believes that weapons inspections are working and should continue, promptly rejected the March 17 deadline citing the positive weapons report.

"We cannot accept anything with an ultimatum or that authorizes the use of force," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villipen said. "There is significant evidence real disarmament has been observed."

Despite the French refusal of the deadline, the proposal sets the stage for a flurry of diplomacy over at least the next few days as the Bush administration and Britain seek to win enough support on the council to bring diplomacy on Iraq to a close within days.

President Bush made it clear in a news conference Thursday night he is convinced Iraq is not complying with its U.N. obligations to disarm, and that the United States soon will take action with or without the United Nations if Iraq continues to hoard weapons of mass destruction. Bush said he will push for a vote on the use-of-force resolution "within days."

Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has been hemorrhaging support because of his stand with Bush, desperately needs the United Nations to approve a use-of-force authorization before going to war.

France, Russia and China, which all oppose war anytime soon and wield the power to veto council resolutions, have thus far stopped short of threatening the March 17 deadline plan with a flat out veto.

Despite his opposition, France’s de Villipen repeatedly avoided using the word "veto," even when repeatedly pressed by reporters. He would only say he refused "to accept" it.

It was not clear Friday specifically what Iraq would have to do by March 17 to prove it is disarming, but Secretary of State Colin Powell said it should be "besieging" inspectors with documentation, weapons and equipment.

Thus far, Powell said, cooperation has been "grudging."

Scorecard for war

So far, the deadline proposal has solid support only from the United States, Britain, Spain and Bulgaria. Nine votes - without a veto - are needed for passage.

Administration diplomats are feverishly courting six council nations now on the fence: Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Guinea, Cameroon and Angola.

Even if the U.S. draft resolution were vetoed, winning nine votes would stand as a moral victory for the president.

The votes of the undecided six were still up for grabs Friday.

Most of their representatives on the Security Council were largely noncommittal, calling Iraq’s disarmament insufficient and then urging council unity. They did, however, discourage the United States from acting outside the United Nations as Bush has said he will do if necessary.

Some representatives delivered carefully nuanced statements. Chile, for example, advocated continued rigorous inspections, but with a strict time limit.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto spoke of striving for the broadest possible consensus, opening the formula for inspections and being firm "through peaceful means."

New progress

In his weapons report to the Security Council, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix reported that while Iraq has not fully complied with its obligations to disarm, it has shown significant progress since the inspections started Nov. 27.

Blix said Iraq is destroying its banned Al Samoud 2 missiles, and has come forth with some of the information requested about its chemical and biological weapons, including VX nerve agent and anthrax.

"We are not watching the breaking of toothpicks - lethal weapons are being destroyed," Blix said. "There is a significant Iraqi effort under way."

Mohammed Aldouri, Iraq’s representative to the United Nations, said the report is evidence that Iraq is disarming and accused the United States of setting impossible compliance standards so it can justify "its own aggressive agenda in the region."

Powell discounted much of the progress in Blix's report as more last-minute scrambling by Iraq to avoid a war rather than disarm.

"This progress is often more apparent than real," he said.