The Bush administration faced broad opposition in the U.N. Security Council today to its quest for authorization for military action to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and destroy any weapons of mass destruction.
After hearing a measured presentation of pluses and minuses in recent Iraqi behavior by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, a solid majority of council members said the inspectors should be given more time to do their work before the world body considers the use of force.
The session dealt a severe blow to the administration's carefully calibrated campaign to gain early approval for a U.S.-led invasion. France, continuing to marshal opposition to an attack on Iraq, proposed that inspectors report again to the council on March 14, long after the White House had aimed to have Security Council support.
Blix's report faulted the Iraqis for failing to comply with U.N. demands, but credited the Hussein government with several steps he described as "indicative of a more active attitude."
Blix said the Iraqi missile program was in clear violation of U.N. mandates prohibiting the development of longer-range rockets. He said Hussein's government had failed to account for its past germ and poison gas supplies. Yet he also cited an increased Iraqi willingness to produce documents and provide other help.
In addition, Blix challenged several conclusions presented to the United Nations earlier this month by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and said the U.S. administration was continuing to withhold intelligence information.
U.S. officials had hoped that presentations today by Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei would provide sufficient evidence to persuade the divided council that Iraq deserves the "serious consequences" threatened by the council in its November resolution on Iraq -- understood as the use of military force to dislodge Hussein.
Instead, many of the diplomats around the table, representing populations who are opposed to war and are resentful of perceived U.S. aggression, indicated the Americans had not yet made its case.
Powell, thrown onto the defensive, discarded his prepared remarks to challenge his counterparts' assessments of the Iraqi government's actions.
"These are all tricks that are being played on us," Powell said. "These are not responsible actions on the part of Iraq. These are continued efforts to deceive, to deny, to divert, to throw us off the path."
British and American sources said late today that they still intend to propose a Security Council resolution next week designed to declare Iraq in violation of U.N. requirements and threaten the use of force. They noted Blix's formal assertion about the Iraqi missile program and his continued objection to government monitoring of interviews with scientists.
In Baghdad, Hussein and the Iraqi parliament assented to a long-standing request by the inspectors by banning the import and production of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, along with the materials to manufacture them.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer scoffed at the news. "If one would just want to make believe and pretend that Iraq is a democracy that would pass meaningful laws, it would be 12 years late, and 26,000 liters of anthrax short. It would be 12 years late and 38,000 liters of [botulinum toxin] short," he said. "And it would be 12 years late and 30,000 . . . chemical warheads short."
Maneuvering has intensified in recent days among the 15 Security Council nations as President Bush has insisted that further U.N. inspections will not accomplish the goal of disarming Hussein, whom the White House considers a supporter of international terrorism and a threat to his country's neighbors.
The U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region will soon reach 150,000 troops, the threshold for effective action, U.S. commanders have said. Plans for humanitarian relief and U.S. military control over the Iraq are nearing completion, as are negotiations with potential allies. A number of decisions, however, await choices to be made by the Security Council.
Blix's much-awaited report criticized the Iraqis for failing to cooperate fully. He said Iraq possesses banned missiles, as well as rocket engines and chambers used to construct new engines.
Blix also said Iraq continues to fail to account for large quantities of anthrax and VX gas -- a point he made in a Jan. 27 presentation to the council. Iraq needs to reveal the weapons if they exist, he said, or present credible evidence of their destruction.
But, in raising the issue, Blix also made a subtle dig at the Bush administration, which has acknowledged this week that it continues to withhold intelligence data from the inspection teams. Inspectors, Blix said, "must base their reports only on evidence, which they can themselves examine and present publicly. Without evidence, confidence cannot arise."
Blix questioned several contentions made by Powell in his detailed Feb. 4 presentation to the Security Council, including an allegation that Iraqis had been tipped off to some impending inspections. Blix, noting that inspectors have conducted more than 400 unannounced inspections in the past 11 weeks, said the U.N. teams have uncovered no convincing evidence that the Iraqis were alerted in advance.
The U.N. inspections leader also expressed reservations about the U.S. analysis of a sequence of satellite photographs of a munitions site, which Powell offered as evidence that Iraq likely was moving prohibited weapons out of range of the inspectors. Blix said the reported movement "could just as easily have been a routine activity."
On the question of nuclear weapons, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said the IAEA has finished examining 2,000 pages of documents seized Jan. 16 from an Iraqi scientist's home -- evidence, the Americans said, that the Iraqi regime was hiding government documents in private homes. The documents, including some marked classified, appear to be the scientist's personal files, ElBaradei told the council.
The documents, which contained information about the use of laser technology to enrich uranium, refer to activities and sites known to the IAEA and do not change the agency's conclusions about Iraq's laser enrichment program, ElBaradei said.
"We have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq," ElBaradei said in summing up his findings.
ElBaradei underscored his faith in the value of continued inspections, outlining his plans to expand his operations in the coming weeks. He intends to hire more analysts, trade experts and customs officers to help untangle mysteries associated with Iraq's nuclear weapons program. To finish, he believes, likely would take months.
One after another, foreign diplomats took the comments of Blix and ElBaradei as a reason to give inspections more time. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin received applause -- rarely offered in the council -- for their remarks.
"There is one point of principle that we all must answer: Must the inspectors continue their work in Iraq in the interest of a political settlement?" Ivanov asked. "Russia answers yes to that question."
De Villepin said U.N. pressure on Iraq is showing "real progress" and argued that a war poses great risks to Iraqis and regional stability alike. He warned against "premature military action."
"No one can assert today that the path of war will be shorter than that of the inspections," de Villepin said. "No one can claim either that it might lead to a safer, more just and more stable world."
De Villepin also challenged allegations made by Powell that Iraq has strong ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network. "Nothing allows us to establish such links," he said, citing a French review of its own intelligence and the work of other agencies.
Powell told the council after de Villepin spoke that the United States will soon reveal more evidence of connections between Iraq and terrorists.
One sign of how badly things were going for the Bush administration was the declaration of Chile's U.N. ambassador, Gabriel Valdes, whose government had been moving closer to Washington's line on Iraq: "I think that what the report has underlined is that the inspections are working and therefore inspections should continue."
Only Britain, Spain and Bulgaria spoke in support of the U.S. position. Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said Blix's report showed that Iraq is not actively cooperating, and added that the Iraqis have not addressed the complaints in Blix's earlier report.
"In a word," Palacio said, "all the questions remain."