The United States and Britain have agreed that it is pointless to continue a U.N. Security Council debate over Iraq beyond next week, but are unlikely to press for a vote on their new resolution authorizing war unless they are assured of the necessary nine votes, U.S. and diplomatic officials said yesterday.
Officials said a report to the council by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix on Friday will be the beginning of an endgame to quickly resolve the question of U.N. support for military action with a final showdown between the United States and France, the most powerful opponent of early military action.
"I think that . . . meeting will mark the final open break between council members," one council ambassador said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon disclosed yesterday that it has issued deployment orders to the 1st Armored Division in Germany, the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Tex., and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, La., bringing the total number of ground forces in, or heading for, the Persian Gulf region to 235,000. The U.S. military has now deployed five of its 10 active-duty Army divisions.
Senior defense officials said the newly deployed units, with thousands of vehicles and hundreds of Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and an array of helicopters, probably will not arrive in the region until sometime in April at the earliest, at which point they could either roll into combat or, if the war were over, participate in stabilizing Iraq.
"This is the notion -- you keep flowing, you keep going, if the fight keeps going," one official said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer reminded reporters yesterday that President Bush said in late January that "this issue will come to a head in a matter of weeks, not months," a period that presumably ends in late March. "Nothing has changed that timetable," Fleischer said.
Even if a war decision is made at the end of next week, it could still be weeks before an attack would begin, as U.S. military commanders would strive for an element of tactical surprise. At the same time, Fleischer has said Bush will inform Americans of his decision. U.N. and other international personnel also are expected to be given time to evacuate Iraq.
Heading toward Friday's council meeting, U.S. and diplomatic officials sketched several possible outcomes. But while they emphasized they are still far from sure what turn diplomatic events will take, they expressed little doubt that the administration would activate its military plans, no matter what happens at the council.
Blix is expected, once again, to provide ammunition for both sides, saying that Iraq has failed to make a full commitment to disarm, as required in November's unanimously adopted council resolution, but that there has been some progress. In particular, he has already cited Iraq's destruction of prohibited Al Samoud-2 missiles as "significant," and said that Baghdad has signaled it would turn over additional evidence that it has destroyed all chemical and biological weapons.
Administration officials have dismissed the missile destruction, which continued with another half-dozen yesterday, bringing the total to 16 destroyed out of an estimated 100 in Iraq's possession. One called it a "distraction" designed to deflect attention from Baghdad's failure to disarm fully. Fleischer insisted, erroneously, that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "denied he had these weapons," and cited the deception as one of the many reasons why Hussein could not be trusted. In fact, the Al Samoud-2s were among the few new items listed in an Iraqi weapons declaration submitted to the Security Council in December, and their destruction Saturday began on schedule in accordance with Blix's demands.
Fleischer also said that Hussein had still not presented any proof of his claim to have destroyed thousands of liters of biological and chemical weapons long ago that the United Nations believed Iraq possessed.
None of these U.S. charges is likely to change minds on the 15-member Security Council, where a choice between the U.S. and the French positions is likely to come down to where each country perceives its own national interests lie. The five permanent, veto-bearing members are split between the United States and Britain on one side, and France, Russia and China on the other, with each camp claiming two additional non-permanent member votes. Nine votes, with no vetoes, are necessary for passage.
Washington and London believe that neither Russia nor China will kill the resolution with a veto, and that they will abstain. But they remain unsure what France will do. U.S. and diplomatic officials said yesterday that they plan to confront Paris with its own call many weeks ago for inspections to continue at least until March 14.
Both sides continue to pressure the six small countries -- Chile, Mexico, Angola, Cameroon, Guinea and Pakistan -- that could make up nine votes for resolution passage. U.N. representatives of those countries, all of whom have said they would prefer to see a war decision delayed and inspections continue, met yesterday with Canadian Ambassador Paul Heinbecker. Canada, which is not a council member, has offered the council a compromise that would set specific disarmament tasks for Iraq and an end-of-March deadline for their completion.
If nine votes can be assembled within several days of the Friday meeting with Blix, and if Russian and Chinese abstentions are assured, U.S. and diplomatic officials said they may vote at the end of next week even under threat of a French veto. "We could let them veto it and then turn on them," one official said. If there are not nine votes, the official said, "then there will be no vote." Under such a scenario, the United States and Britain would then proceed to a decision on war without the council.
Although British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he prefers a council vote, officials have said in recent days that he is committed to the participation of British troops with or without one.
In another indication that the war deadline is rapidly approaching, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, whom the administration has appointed to run initial postwar humanitarian, reconstruction and civil administration programs in Iraq, briefed U.N. officials on his plans yesterday. Addressing a U.N. steering committed headed by U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, Garner said that he intends to remain in charge of Iraq for a "brief period." Those listening to the presentation interpreted this to mean a few months.
Garner said the nature of a transition to Iraqi rule remains "unsettled," a U.N. diplomat said. Garner assured the panel that the administration is committed to "the fastest possible transition," but said that it is too early to consider a "timetable."
He made no mention of U.S. plans to install an American civilian to replace him as civil administrator, as the Pentagon has discussed. Instead, he talked about the possibility of appointing a "respected international figure." He did not discuss the person's nationality, or whether the person would serve under an international mandate or Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command.
Staff writers Vernon Loeb in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.