President Bush and his principal allies against Iraq yesterday arranged an emergency weekend summit to discuss their failure to achieve United Nations approval of a resolution authorizing war and to set a course toward imminent military action.
The White House announced that Bush will travel Sunday to the Azores, the Portuguese island territory in the eastern Atlantic, to discuss "diplomatic options" with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. But senior administration officials said that the time for diplomacy had ended, and that the meeting was arranged primarily to allow Bush and Blair to appear to be making a final effort at peace.
Officials said only two likely options remained, both of which would end in activation of the U.S. war plan. The first is to submit the resolution to a U.N. Security Council vote it is certain to lose and then proceed to war. The second, more likely, option is to withdraw the resolution introduced late last month and claim existing international legal authority to attack without new U.N. authorization.
"It's harder to proceed if you have a vote against you than if you have nothing," a senior U.S. official said. "For legal reasons, we're in the best position we can possibly be in right now."
Wrapping up other prewar issues, the White House complied with an earlier promise to Blair to announce the release of a "road map" to guide an Arab-Israeli peace process. Bush had been criticized by partners in a lengthy Middle East negotiating process, including the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, for holding up the document.
Bush's final go-ahead, likely to come as early as next week, will mark an abrupt end to months of unsuccessful efforts to convince the international community that war against Iraq is justified and urgent. Instead of the U.N.-sanctioned coalition that joined to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991, the United States will lead a "coalition of the willing" comprised overwhelmingly of U.S. forces and restricted in the extent to which it can use the territory and resources of other countries.
Some of those countries have given private assurances of assistance, and the administration yesterday blamed its failure to win more widespread public backing, particularly in the Security Council, on council unwillingness to follow through on a pledge made last fall to take action if Iraq failed to comply with U.N. disarmament demands. Particular anger was directed at France, which threatened to veto what it sees as a premature recourse to the use of force.
"We've been at this a very long time, as an international community -- 12 years," since the United Nations first ordered Iraq to destroy all its weapons of mass destruction after the 1991 war, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday. "Sooner or later the United Nations Security Council has got to act or not act."
The administration clearly believes that it must be sooner. Defense officials have said the more than 200,000 U.S. troops deployed to the Persian Gulf region could wait at least another month before having to attack, and a number of council members said they believed a compromise involving a more extended deadline for Iraq was still possible. But diplomatic and political imperatives, and a belief that no concession would ever bring Security Council agreement, have led the administration to conclude that delay was no longer acceptable.
"It is time to come to a conclusion that says to [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, 'It is time for you to disarm or be disarmed,' " Rice told reporters as she left an interview in the downtown office of al-Jazeera, the Arab television network. "The moment of truth is coming here, and it's time for the co-sponsors to get together and discuss it."
But other council members attributed the breakdown in U.N. negotiations to U.S. intransigence. "We have gone around and around here trying to organize some kind of reasonable piece of paper," said an exhausted ambassador from one of six uncommitted Security Council members whose votes both the United States and France were seeking. "But it is impossible."
It appeared unlikely that the council would proceed with a presentation planned for early next week by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, who has prepared a list of 12 key remaining disarmament tasks that could serve as benchmarks for judging Iraqi cooperation in turning over all chemical, biological and other prohibited weapons within a month or two. Under the surreal conditions that have prevailed at the United Nations in recent days, Blix has been developing the list, which was requested by the council a week ago, even as diplomatic efforts to agree on a way to proceed have fallen apart.
Events leading to yesterday's rapid dissolving of all compromise efforts began late last month, when Britain, along with the United States and Spain, introduced a resolution declaring that Baghdad had failed to meet demands set by the council last November for full and immediate disarmament. Diplomats from those countries, supported on the council by Bulgaria, made clear that Iraq's opportunities to cooperate had expired and the resolution was to be interpreted as advance authorization for war.
Inspectors who began work in Iraq in late November had reported partial progress, and three permanent council members with veto power -- France, Russia and China -- said their efforts should continue. They were joined by nonpermanent members Germany and Syria.
Although a veto would doom the resolution to failure, its sponsors thought they could achieve a "moral victory" by winning over at least five of the remaining six members. In response to their concerns, Britain last week added a deadline of March 17 to the resolution to give Iraq more time to comply. This week, the British added six "benchmark" tests. But the six uncommitted nations resisted, saying they preferred a longer deadline, and would not sign off in advance on an "automatic" authorization for war with no allowance for further council consideration.
Several proposed compromises were circulated this week among the four resolution proponents; the "solid" five opponents, led by France; and the "undecided six" -- Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan. The final attempt occurred yesterday morning, when Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, in a speech in Santiago, proposed five "benchmark" tests, a three-week deadline and a final council judgment.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer shot down the proposal within hours, noting that he had said days ago that Bush was unwilling to extend the deadline. "If it was a nonstarter then, it's a nonstarter now," Fleischer said. Diplomatic sources said the administration followed up with a barrage of critical calls by high-level U.S. officials to their Chilean counterparts.
"The United States does not want to return to the table again in three weeks, or 45 days, or at all," said another diplomat from the group of six. "For the United States, the only question is, 'Give us the check now and we will cash it in 10 days or 30 days. But it will be cashed.' "
"They think we cannot accommodate this because of the French," the diplomat said, "but it's in the U.N. Charter. It says that force has to be explicitly authorized by the council after all other avenues have been explored. They are asking that we grant one country the ability to make that decision. It's impossible for us."
The combination of the Middle East announcement and the planned Azores summit, hastily arranged Thursday night and not finalized until yesterday morning, left British officials feeling that things were somewhat better than they had seemed for most of this week, which began with a threatened resignation from Blair's cabinet.
The low point occurred Wednesday, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said it was unclear what role the tens of thousands of troops Britain has committed to the planned invasion would play. Rumsfeld issued a clarification, but the damage was done, both in Blair's divided government and to British public opinion, which is overwhelmingly against a war.
Officials in London yesterday said a morning telephone call from French President Jacques Chirac did little to mitigate the "poisoned" atmosphere between the two leaders over Iraq.
For their part, French officials said Chirac wanted to reassure Blair that "we are not fighting against you" and explain why he didn't consider the British U.N. resolution much of a compromise. The two are scheduled to meet next Friday, when European Union leaders gather for a scheduled summit.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.