WASHINGTON - Their prestige and influence at stake, world leaders began coalescing yesterday around the goal of destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, raising the prospect that a less-threatening Saddam Hussein might be able to avoid an American attack and cling to power.
Responding to mounting pressure from the United States, capped by President Bush's warning to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, a number of leaders echoed American calls for urgent action by the international community to disarm Iraq.
"If Iraq's defiance continues, the [U.N.] Security Council must face its responsibilities," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his speech to the gathering of world leaders.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen said, "We are facing a lot of very, very difficult choices, and I guess we will have to choose among a lot of bad options."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will begin working today with Annan and the four countries that hold permanent seats with the United States on the Security Council - Britain, France, Russia and China. They will discuss ways to "up the pressure" on Hussein to force him to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors and dismantle his chemical, biological and nuclear programs, a Security Council diplomat said.
U.S. officials said they were encouraged by reactions to Bush's speech from France and Denmark, which holds the presidency of the European Union, and silence from Russia and China.
France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said Bush's speech was "fully compatible" with his country's policy.
The four countries Powell will be working with derive global influence from their permanent seats on the Security Council, which give them veto power over major U.N. decisions involving war and peace around the globe. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States is the only nation that can project major military forces over any region of the world.
Bush warned his fellow leaders yesterday that the United Nations risked losing credibility in dealing with major threats to international security if it failed to enforce a series of resolutions dating back 11 years requiring Iraq not only to disarm but to cease its repression of minorities and gross violations of human rights.
"I can't believe that any member of the Permanent Five of the Security Council wants to go down in history as being like the League of Nations," a senior administration official told reporters yesterday, referring to the long-defunct world body that proved itself toothless in the face of German, Japanese and Italian aggression in the years leading up to World War II.
In the president's audience yesterday, "there was a lot of acknowledgment of the truth in what Bush was saying," a European diplomat said. "There is strong momentum behind the idea of 'This can't dribble on forever.'"
Senior administration officials said yesterday that they want the United Nations to act within weeks to force Iraq to begin disarming, through inspections or other means. Diplomats are discussing one or more Security Council resolutions setting a deadline for Iraq to grant unfettered access to U.N. weapons inspectors or face military action. Drafting of a resolution may not come for at least a week, however.
By working through the United Nations, Bush bowed to strong pressure from European allies, moderate Arab governments and some members of Congress who don't want the United States to invade Iraq without international approval.
"We're ready to be internationalist, but everybody has got to think long and hard about what kind of world we're going to live in," a senior State Department official said.
Administration officials don't believe that Iraq will disarm as long as Hussein remains in power and that, ultimately, the threat Iraq poses to the United States and its allies in the Middle East will only be removed by military action to topple the dictator.
Any move has to proceed "from the premise that you're going to get neither cooperation nor full disclosure" from the Iraqis, a senior administration official told reporters after Bush's speech.
But this opinion isn't universally shared, even among key U.S. allies. Speaking in Washington yesterday, Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, said, "I will not be surprised if he accepts inspectors to be in Baghdad."
Qatar is one of America's main allies in the Persian Gulf region, agreeing to play host to a temporary U.S. central command headquarters during exercises next month. The command's base is Florida.
By agreeing to collective action, Bush seems to be setting aside, at least temporarily, the goal of "regime change" in Iraq, although officials said that goal remains U.S. policy.
If it wants international support, the United States has to decide whether its priority is disarming Iraq or removing its leader, said Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.
The key Iraqi threat lies in its weapons of mass destruction, she said. "Without them, he is a threat to the Iraqi people. With them, he is a threat to the region, to us and to the world." As soon as the United States moves beyond the goal of disarmament, she said, "international support for what we want to do is lost."