WASHINGTON - President Bush plans today to call the leaders of Russia, France and China, three veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, as he tries to overcome international resistance to a possible war against Iraq.
"I will remind them that history has called us into action," Bush said yesterday. "We can't let the world's worst leaders blackmail, threaten, hold freedom-loving nations hostage with the world's worst weapons."
The phone calls - to Presidents Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Jiang Zemin of China and Jacques Chirac of France - are part of a stepped-up campaign by the administration, at home and abroad, to build support for confronting Saddam Hussein's regime.
Those conversations will be followed by a meeting between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain at Camp David tomorrow.
The White House wants to determine whether it can win Security Council endorsement for military action if Baghdad continues to block U.N. inspectors from searching Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.
Administration officials say such a resolution would not be legally necessary to invade Iraq. But U.N. backing proved crucial for the first Bush administration in winning congressional authorization for the United States to launch the Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1991.
Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, urged the president yesterday to seek a U.N. resolution again.
"It would certainly be in the president's best interest, our country's best interest, for him to go to the Security Council, to the United Nations, to solicit their support and to encourage and to acquire their active engagement in this effort, just as his father did," Daschle said.
Bush plans to lay out his case against Iraq in a major speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. The administration argues that Hussein's regime is close to developing nuclear weapons that could terrorize neighboring countries in the Middle East and possibly threaten the United States. Iraq is also known to possess chemical and biological weapons.
Bush's speech is unlikely to include any startling revelations about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. A senior administration official said yesterday that American intelligence agencies have not come up with a "smoking gun" - adding, "Not yet, anyway."
The argument for action against Iraq, the official said, is based mostly on an analytical judgment. Officials say Iraq proved to be much closer to developing nuclear weapons than intelligence agencies suspected before the Persian Gulf war, repeatedly tried to conceal its weapons programs from U.N. inspectors and, since it barred inspectors from Iraq four years ago, has been free to continue weapons development without scrutiny.
This might not be enough to persuade some foreign leaders. Foreign Minister Bill Graham of Canada said, for example, that he would want evidence that Iraq was not only producing weapons of mass destruction but also planning to use them and had means to deliver them.
In addition to the Bush speech, the administration is preparing additional documents, outlining its case against Iraq, that will be used by U.S. diplomats around the world.
Apart from Britain's Blair and the Israeli government, no major ally has endorsed the idea of going to war against Iraq. Among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that have veto power, Russia and China oppose military action, and France has said it must be approved beforehand by the council. (Britain and the United States are the two other permanent council members.)
Even Blair has stopped short of publicly endorsing Bush's goal of toppling Hussein's regime. At least one U.S. ally, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, has said he would not back pre-emptive military action against Baghdad, even if the United Nations provides backing for it.
In the end, the wording of a U.N. resolution might require significant compromises, and some diplomats question whether the result would be worth the effort.
"I think we could get a resolution, but the risk of strings being attached to the authorization [of military action] is potentially serious," a senior administration official said.
Bush does draw wide international support, including from Arab countries, for his demand that Iraq allow weapons inspectors back in. The administration evidently calculates that its best hope of generating eventual allied support for an invasion is to show that it gave Baghdad one final chance to open up its weapons to inspections.
American officials have already begun exerting pressure on Russia to support a tough stance against Iraq, warning its leaders that Moscow could pay an economic price if it failed to back the United States.
According to a senior administration official, U.S. envoys have told Moscow that "if they don't come along, you can guarantee that the next Iraqi regime will stiff them."
Russian officials have signed multiyear agreements worth billions of dollars to develop Iraq's oil-production capacity. U.S. officials have also stressed that a new Iraqi government would not be constrained by U.N. sanctions and so would be better positioned than the Hussein regime is to repay the large debts Iraq owes Russia.
Russia is the only country that might veto a U.S.-sponsored resolution. The senior administration official said that France, at worst, would abstain from voting, and that Chirac and the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, "are moving in our direction."
A French official cautioned, though, that Chirac "is keen to know what Bush has in mind on all the options which are open to him concerning Iraq."
China would be likely to abstain, the senior official said.
One idea under consideration by the administration, an official said, is to propose a small military guard force to accompany U.N. weapons inspectors.
The actual drafting of a U.N. resolution, diplomats said, could be weeks off. They said it would likely include a deadline for Iraq to give inspectors unfettered access to the country, as well as a vaguely worded threat that would imply the use of force. An explicit threat of military action would likely invite a Russian veto, diplomats said.
Before the 1991 war, Secretary of State James A. Baker III persuaded the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, to back a resolution authorizing "all necessary means" to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
Baker recently urged the Bush administration to seek a resolution in the current confrontation with Iraq. "Seeking new authorization now is necessary, politically and practically, and will help build international support," he wrote.
Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.