Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the final preparations today for a high-stakes speech before the U.N. Security Council Wednesday that the Bush administration hopes will convince wavering nations that Iraq continues to hide weapons of mass destruction in defiance of U.N. demands to disarm.
With polls showing little support around the world for a U.S.-led strike against Iraq, the administration is gambling that Powell's address will persuade enough nations on the 15-member council to support a resolution authorizing military force, or at the very least ease the demands for months of additional U.N. weapons inspections.
Powell's presentation, the product of days of intense analysis and debate among senior U.S. national security and intelligence officials, will include declassified satellite images of suspected mobile bioweapons labs, information on hidden chemical or biological weapons, and intercepted conversations of Iraqi officials planning to thwart U.N. inspectors, officials said.
"He will show the Iraqis aren't complying and have no intention of complying," a senior State Department official said.
Officials said intelligence on alleged links between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network would comprise a smaller part of Powell's remarks and would mostly elaborate on previous charges made by U.S. officials.
Administration officials pointed to Powell's presentation as a possible watershed in the United States' long confrontation with Iraq. To underscore the importance of the moment and the weight the administration is putting behind the evidence, CIA Director George J. Tenet will accompany Powell to the Security Council and sit behind him during his presentation.
In advance of Powell's speech, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush's closest ally, met with French President Jacques Chirac on the French coast but did not persuade him to halt France's opposition to imminent war. Ten Eastern European countries, however, said they were readying a statement of support for the United States that would be issued after Powell speaks.
Hans Blix, the head of the U.N. weapons inspection commission, warned Iraq that it may be on the verge of squandering its last opportunity to reverse course and provide credible evidence that can settle unanswered questions about its alleged chemical and biological arsenals and nuclear weapons development program. "Isn't it five minutes to midnight?" Blix told reporters today. "I don't think that the end is here, that a date has been set for an armed action. But I think we're moving closer and closer to it."
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in a rare interview, weighed in as well. He told a left-wing British politician, in a televised interview, that he had no connection to al Qaeda and denied that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Powell's presentation, which will be broadcast live, will be a "full multimedia blitz" lasting about 90 minutes, a senior Bush administration official said. Drawing from "human, overhead and signals" sources -- testimony from defectors and captives, surveillance images and electronic intercepts -- it will include photographs, videos and voice recordings in Arabic, for which translation will be provided.
Powell will devote the bulk of his speech to Iraq's banned weapons programs and to proving that it is deliberately failing to cooperate with the Security Council resolution passed Nov. 8 giving Baghdad a final chance to disarm. He will discuss specific types of chemical or biological warheads, bombs and shells that the United States believes Iraq has hidden, one official said. Powell also will present new details on what the administration says are Iraq's mobile biological weapons laboratories, based on information from three defectors, the official said. In addition, Powell will produce excerpts from intercepted conversations in which U.S. officials say Iraqis discuss their deception of U.N. inspectors since they returned to Iraq in November.
A senior official said the al Qaeda portion of Powell's presentation will largely focus on providing more specific evidence related to information already made public, including the presence of al Qaeda operatives in Baghdad and training in chemical and biological weapons.
Officials spent long hours in intensive debate, often past midnight, during the past week trying to decide what intelligence to include in Powell's presentation. Officials argued over whether to include information linking Iraq to al Qaeda, which some believed was too tenuous, and also whether disclosure of some information would harm sources, unveil intelligence-gathering techniques or potentially reveal targets of a military strike.
Powell, who worked through the weekend on his presentation, met at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York this afternoon with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, whose government opposes using force to disarm Iraq, to discuss both Iraq and the nuclear crisis with North Korea. Then, he closeted himself with aides to go over various drafts of his speech. One aide said the final version would not be complete until 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, when Powell is due to deliver it.
U.S. officials set up two large screens and two smaller ones in the Security Council chamber today to give diplomats a good view of Powell's presentation. After Powell speaks, each of the other nations represented on the council -- most by their foreign ministers -- will deliver a statement for about 10 minutes. Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Douri, will be permitted to offer a rebuttal to Powell's speech after all of the statements have been completed.
Among council members, only Britain, Spain and Bulgaria appear at the moment to support the administration on quickly bringing the inspections to an end. Those favoring continued inspections include Russia, France, China -- which have veto power -- as well as Germany, Pakistan, Syria and Mexico.
U.N. delegates said today that several previews of Powell's presentation that have appeared in the press over the past week had done little to fundamentally alter their positions. But they said they were eager to see what Powell had to show.
"Certainly we are favorable to the continuation of inspections," said Mexico's U.N. ambassador, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser. "We have seen no evidence that Iraq has these weapons, but no evidence they don't have the weapons."
Some Security Council diplomats said it was not yet clear whether Powell's presentation would be sufficient to rally the council behind a U.S.-supported resolution that would authorize the use of force to disarm Iraq. "I think it's quite uncertain," said a senior Security Council member. "We've got a lot of work to do."The Iraqi ambassador said he was confident that Powell would fail to convince the majority of council members that Iraq is interfering in inspections in Iraq. "I am very curious to listen to him," Douri said. "I don't think he will give any new evidence that will convince the international community" that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction.
On Saturday, Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, are scheduled to arrive in Baghdad for a two-day visit to determine whether Iraq has new evidence to provide on its weapons programs. They are to report back to the council again on Feb. 14.
"I'm pleading for Iraq to [provide] cooperation on substance," Blix said. "It seems to me that they could do things which would change the situation . . . and give evidence that could convince the world."
In Iraq today, U.N. arms investigators found another empty chemical warhead, the 17th discovered since mid-January. Iraqi officials have said the empty munitions found earlier were overlooked leftovers from the 1980s.
Britain published a paper this week alleging that Iraq actively concealed banned weapons and deceived inspectors. The 19-page paper says that Iraq has employed more than 20,00 Iraqi intelligence officers "who are engaged in disrupting [U.N.] inspections and concealing weapons of mass destruction."
Blix told reporters that he has received no hard evidence to support those claims.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.