WASHINGTON - President Bush struggled yesterday to preserve his fragile international coalition against Iraq, warning the United Nations Security Council not to "get fooled again" by Iraq's sudden offer Monday to readmit weapons inspectors.
Bush made headway on Capitol Hill in his drive to enlist support for possible military action against Saddam Hussein. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said a vote on an Iraq resolution could come "well before the election" of a new Congress on Nov. 5. Congressional leaders will meet with the president today to discuss the content of the resolution.
But Bush appeared to face problems abroad. Five days after his speech to the U.N. General Assembly jolted the world community into applying pressure on the Iraqi leader, the president saw key nations begin to back away from his drive for a tough new U.N. resolution that could prepare the diplomatic ground for military action to topple Hussein's regime.
France and Russia, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, reacted to Iraq's offer by urging that inspectors get to work without delay in searching for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They also questioned the need for any new U.N. resolution, let alone one that threatened war.
"This will, of course, be discussed in the coming days at the Security Council, but we must not lose time, act quickly, send in the inspectors," said Francois Rivasseau, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry.
At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said: "Today we have an opportunity. We have a decision taken by Iraq to receive the inspectors without conditions. They have to get there now."
China, another Security Council member with veto power, also welcomed the Iraqi offer, as did Arab countries.
Trying to stiffen the United Nations' resolve, the White House joined the British government, the staunchest U.S. ally against Iraq, in launching a public diplomacy offensive to remind the world of Baghdad's long record of deception.
Bush used an appearance at a school in Nashville, Tenn., to remind world leaders that Iraq had misled the United Nations in the past. "You can't get fooled again," he said.
Speaking of Hussein, Bush said, "This is a man who has delayed, denied, deceived the world. For the sake of liberty and justice for all, the ... Security Council must act, must act in way to hold this regime to account, must not be fooled, must be relevant to keep the peace."
Vice President Dick Cheney, at a Washington fund-raiser last night, said of the Iraqi offer: "In some quarters, that was regarded as a significant breakthrough. The problem, of course, is we've heard that sort of thing before."
Both the White House and British government issued lengthy lists of occasions when Iraq lied to and obstructed U.N. inspectors - sometimes at gunpoint - and hid evidence of its weapons programs.
The British report said that Iraq had acknowledged past attempts to "to conceal documentation, personnel, components, research and production equipment, biological and chemical agents and weapons."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell continued his campaign for a resolution that would find Iraq in "material breach" of past U.N. orders, require Iraq to comply with them and threaten unspecified consequences for continued defiance.
As he did so, U.N. officials took the first steps toward sending the inspectors back into Iraq.
Hans Blix, who heads the inspection agency in charge of looking into Iraq's chemical, biological and missile programs, met with Iraqi officials late yesterday to plan logistics. A member of the Iraqi team announced afterward that another meeting had been set late next week in Vienna, Austria
In Vienna, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would search for evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq, said a small team could be sent to Baghdad within 10 days to lay the groundwork for new inspections. Inspections could start in four to six weeks, the spokesman said.
Agency officials say that with full Iraqi cooperation, inspectors might be ready in a year or less to recommend that the Security Council lift the U.N. sanctions.
U.S. and British officials said that despite Iraq's promise of no conditions on the inspectors' return, Baghdad's letter had not promised that the inspectors would be granted "unfettered access" to any site they wanted to search, nor did it promise full cooperation.
Kelly Motz, an analyst at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said inspectors' access could be hindered by the terms of previous agreements between the United Nations and Iraq. In 1998, for example, Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed to Iraqi demands for special procedures on inspection of so-called presidential sites, including the requirement that the inspectors be accompanied by diplomats.
Motz said the Bush administration was "kind of stuck right now" as a result of the Iraqi initiative. "A lot of powers wanted inspections to be an alternative to war, not a possible step along the way to war."
Bush should remain disciplined and persistent in order to prevent the Security Council from approving a watered-down resolution, said Philip D. Zelikow, a University of Virginia historian who was a National Security Council aide in the first Bush administration. "If you say you want X and settle for Y, people don't think you mean what you say."
On Capitol Hill, Republican and Democratic leaders alike expressed skepticism about Iraq's offer.
Despite previous reluctance to move quickly on a resolution authorizing military action, Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, appears ready to schedule a vote in the next few weeks. Republicans have publicly berated Democrats - most directly in comments Bush made Friday - for advocating a go-slow approach on Iraq.
"We ought to get on with the next phase," Daschle told reporters.
"We said go to the U.N. - they did," he said in reference to the administration. "We said acknowledge the role of Congress - they have. ... They are doing the things that we have proposed, and it's time for us to reciprocate."
The Iraqi offer, he added, "really doesn't change things."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he expects the White House to send to Congress a proposed resolution late this week or next "authorizing the president to take actions to bring about a regime change and the elimination of the weapons of mass destruction."
Neither that timetable nor Congress' approach will be affected by Iraq's announcement, McCain said. "Saddam Hussein's credibility gap continues to be as wide as the Grand Canyon," he said.
Despite Daschle's new approach of cooperating with the White House, some other senior Democrats questioned the administration's dismissal of Iraq's offer and said it revealed a political motive.
"We have to assume that the White House strategy is to push a confrontation with Congress before the elections in the hopes that it will help Republicans and hurt the Democrats," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters.
Earlier, Durbin in a floor speech called the Iraqi move "good news" and "a dramatic mark of progress." He said that Bush administration officials "won't take yes for an answer."
Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, was suspicious of the administration's motives in focusing such intense pre-election national attention on Iraq. "The president could be doing this to divert attention from domestic issues," he said.
To argue the president's case, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is to appear before the House Armed Services Committee today and tomorrow, and before the Senate Armed Services Committee tomorrow. Powell will testify tomorrow before the House International Relations Committee.
Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.
Key events in efforts for Iraq inspections
Oct. 31, 1998: Iraq ends all forms of cooperation with the U.N. Special Commission inspection team. UNSCOM withdraws.
Nov. 14, 1998: Iraq allows inspections to resume.
Dec. 16, 1998: UNSCOM removes all staff after inspectors conclude Baghdad is not fully cooperating. Four days of U.S. and British airstrikes follow.
June 30, 1999: Richard Butler completes two-year term as UNSCOM executive chairman.
Dec. 17, 1999: U.N. replaces UNSCOM with the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. Iraq rejects the resolution.
March 1, 2000: Hans Blix assumes post of UNMOVIC executive chairman.
November 2000: Iraq rejects new inspections proposals.
July 5, 2002: In talks with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iraq rejects inspections proposals.
Aug. 1: In a letter to Annan, Baghdad invites Blix to Iraq for technical discussions on remaining disarmament issues.
Aug. 6: In reply to Iraqis, Annan points out that what they are proposing is at odds with U.N. resolutions.