US pushes for war vote by Friday

March 13, 2003

The United States is calling for a United Nations vote authorising war against Iraq by the end of the week and scrambled with its allies to write a text that could command a Security Council majority.

President George W Bush, who has over 300,000 troops poised to invade Iraq to remove the government of President Saddam Hussein and destroy his banned weapons programmes, is anxious to resolve the UN standoff quickly.

Bush has pledged to go to war with or without UN backing, but the United States is clearly reluctant to abandon efforts to win a Security Council resolution that would give its military operations added legitimacy under international law.

Even if France and Russia carried through their threat to veto such a resolution, it could provide some much-needed political cover for loyal US allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. They both face public opinion that is overwhelmingly hostile to war without UN approval.

The United States and Britain so far have failed to muster more than four of the nine votes needed for passage of a resolution setting a March 17 deadline for Iraq to satisfy them that it is fully disarming or face attack.

However, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declared: "The vote will take place this week... There's room for a little more diplomacy here but not much room and not much time."

Bush called the president of Security Council member Angola, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, kicking off a hectic day of telephone diplomacy. Angola is one of six Security Council members still uncommitted, the others being Chile, Mexico, Pakistan, Guinea and Cameroon.

Five nations, three of which have veto power, are definitely against the resolution: Russia, France, China, Germany and Syria. Those in favour are the United States, Britain, Spain and Bulgaria.

No extension beyond march

Blair, facing the worst crisis of his leadership, indicated that he might be willing to extend the March 17 ultimatum a little but British officials said they would not let the issue drag out beyond the end of March.

Britain is also looking at ways of setting Iraq-specific goals or tests it must satisfy to avoid being attacked in an effort to round up more support.

"Don't look beyond March," Britain's UN ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, said.

"The United Kingdom is in a negotiation and it is prepared to look at timelines and tests together. But I am pretty sure we are talking about action in March," he said.

Blair criticised France and Russia for threatening to use their veto, saying they were encouraging Saddam to stand firm and not give into UN demands.

"My concern is if countries talk about using a veto in all sets of circumstances, the message that sends to Saddam is: You're off the hook," Blair told reporters in London.

Cameroon's UN ambassador said the Security Council's six undecided nations had proposed a 45-day deadline for Baghdad. But Fleischer dismissed even a month-long extension as a non-starter.

Some respected former US officials urged Bush to keep working with the UN on Iraq, which Bush has committed himself to doing in the stand-off with North Korea over that communist state's nuclear weapons programmes.

"I think the UN brings a sense of credibility, solidarity and multinational support," said former US ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who served as UN ambassador under former President Bill Clinton, said there was no choice but to keep working for the nine votes.

"Getting nine votes with a French veto I think would still be a partial victory and I think then the United States could then move forward," he said.

Oilfields mined

Travellers arriving in Iraq's Kurdish free zone have reported that Iraq mined its northern oilfields of Kirkuk and dug a huge oil-filled trench around the city. However, the reports could not be independently confirmed.

In Iraq, workers began destroying more al-Samoud 2 missiles, meaning almost half the Iraqi arsenal of the prohibited rockets have now been broken up.

Baghdad has denied accusations it is hiding weapons of mass destruction and says it is co-operating with UN inspectors.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the inspectors had made progress and should be given more time.

The United States, which accuses Saddam of hiding banned weapons, has built up a massive force around the Gulf and says it is ready to attack. Analysts say diplomatic wrangling may delay a US-led war on Iraq, but not for long.

US plans to invade Iraq from neighbouring Turkey and open a "northern front" were put on ice this month when the Turkish parliament narrowly rejected a US request to deploy its troops for the attack.

Analysts said Bush was still hoping to activate the plan and was looking to Turkish ruling party leader Tayyip Erdogan to resubmit the request to parliament when he is installed as prime minister later this week.

Security Council members were due to hold an open meeting on Tuesday to give more countries a chance to air their views on the crisis.

© Reuters