`This is the last phase of diplomacy’ for solving Iraq conflict

By Ron Hutcheson, Diego Ibarguen and Martin Merzer Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) WASHINGTON _ President Bush, preparing the world for war, placed the United Nations on notice Thursday night that its diplomats have only a few more days to resolve the Iraqi crisis before he takes military action to disarm Saddam Hussein. “We, of course, are consulting with our allies at the United Nations, but I meant what I said: This is the last phase of diplomacy,” Bush said during a rare prime-time news conference from the White House on the eve of another pivotal day at the United Nations. “A little bit more time?” Bush asked, reacting to the position of many U.N. nations who say it is not yet time for war so long as arms inspections show progress. “Saddam Hussein has had 12 years to disarm.” Weapons inspectors are scheduled to deliver new reports Friday morning to the U.N. Security Council. Chief inspector Hans Blix said this week that Iraq is showing “a great deal more” cooperation, an assessment that could further complicate U.S. efforts to win international support for military action to disarm and depose the Iraqi leader. Bush used the news conference to repeat his now-familiar arguments against Iraq. At bottom, he insisted again that unless Saddam disarms completely, and fast, the United States will disarm him by force. The news conference was broadcast live by virtually every television network. It followed by a few hours word of a possible compromise at the United Nations as Britain floated a proposal to give Iraq a few extra days _ but also a firm deadline _ to prove that it has completely disarmed. Bush said the United States would insist that the Security Council vote on a new resolution _ even if the measure is doomed to failure. “We’ll call for a vote no matter what the whip count is,” Bush said. “You bet. It’s time for people to show their cards and let people know where they stand when it comes to Saddam.” His comments came as 300,000 U.S. and British troops gathered near Iraq and awaited orders that could come as early as next week. Bush said he would give U.N. weapons inspectors and aid workers in Iraq sufficient time to leave before hostilities begin. “We don’t want anybody in harm’s way who shouldn’t be in harm’s way,” he said. “We have no quarrel with anybody other than Saddam and his group of killers who destroyed a society.” At the United Nations, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said his nation might offer a revised version of the U.S.-backed resolution. The measure, also sponsored by Britain and Spain, has aroused growing opposition from other members of the U.N. Security Council. On Thursday, China firmly aligned itself with France, Russia and Germany, which have vowed to block the measure. Diplomats said Britain’s compromise envisions setting a deadline that would arrive less than a week after the resolution is adopted. A vote is likely next week. Straw told the British Broadcasting Company that the new proposal would give Saddam “days and not months” to prove he does not possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. It was possible that negotiations might ensue in which Russia and other opponents of the original resolution might agree to give Saddam a few more weeks to disarm, but no more. As originally written, the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution would have declared simply that Saddam has squandered his final opportunity to disarm. “We are ready to discuss the wording of that resolution and take on board any constructive suggestions of how the process on that draft resolution can be improved,” Straw told reporters at the United Nations. “There’s certainly a possibility of an amendment, and that’s something we’re looking at.” Straw also said that war still could be avoided and that Saddam could remain in power if Iraq fully disarmed, a position that seemed to put Britain at odds with the White House, which in recent days has been emphasizing “regime change” in Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair faces intense dissent at home, even within his own party, to going to war against Saddam without international approval, and Thursday’s developments suggested a new degree of British flexibility. It was unclear if that flexibility was shared by the Bush administration. U.S. officials at the United Nations refused to comment on the possibility that the resolution could be changed. Also Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle _ a Democrat from South Dakota who voted last fall in favor of a war resolution _ broke with the administration, saying that Bush has failed diplomatically and an invasion of Iraq would be premature. Daschle said he believes the president is “rushing to war without an adequate concern for the ramifications of doing so unilaterally or with a very small coalition.” The diplomatic problem facing the administration came into sharper focus Thursday when China reiterated its opposition to the original U.S.-sponsored resolution. “The door of peace should not be closed,” the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese President Jiang Zemin as telling President Jacques Chirac of France. Other Chinese leaders said they supported a joint statement issued Thursday by France, Russia and Germany. Those nations said they would take whatever action was necessary to defeat the resolution. France, Russia and China hold veto power as permanent members of the Security Council, along with America and Britain. They had taken no public position on the concept Britain floated as of Thursday evening. Another sign of the uphill struggle facing the United States and Britain at the U.N. emerged when Chile _ one of six Security Council members undecided until now _ said it was prepared to vote against the original U.S.-British measure. Passage requires nine affirmative votes and no veto from any permanent member. The resolution appears to have four solid votes _ the United States, Britain, Spain and Bulgaria _ while at least five countries are firmly opposed to it. There are 15 members of the Security Council. On Friday, chief U.N. arms inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei are expected to tell the Security Council that their teams have made considerable progress in Iraq recently and that the inspections are working, though some issues remain unresolved. Among the successes: additional private interviews with Iraqi scientists and the ongoing destruction of banned al Samoud 2 missiles. Even a hint of progress could further undermine U.S. and British efforts to win international backing for war. Held in the ornate East Room of the White House and broadcast live by most major television networks, Bush’s 49-minute meeting with reporters was the second prime-time news conference of his presidency and the first since Oct. 11, 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. His last daytime press conference was held on Nov. 7, though Bush often responds to questions under less formal circumstances ___ (Hutcheson reported from the White House, Ibarguen from the United Nations and Merzer, of the Miami Herald, from Washington. Fawn Vrazo of the Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report from London.) ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.