WASHINGTON - Delivering a powerful message to Saddam Hussein that the world is arrayed against him, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously yesterday for a resolution requiring Iraq to disarm or face "serious consequences."
The surprising unanimity of the vote - 15-0 - was an extraordinary victory for President Bush, who had demanded two months ago that the United Nations join him in boldly confronting Iraq over its weapons of mass destruction.
He appeared in the Rose Garden minutes after the U.N. vote, which followed more than seven weeks of negotiations. Bush warned the Iraqi leader that he had one last chance to avoid a war that U.S. officials say would destroy his regime.
"The full disarmament of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq will occur," he said. "The only question for the Iraqi regime is to decide how. The United States prefers that Iraq meet its obligations voluntarily. Yet we are prepared for the alternative."
With the vote, the Bush administration succeeded in putting the weight of international opinion behind its confrontation with Baghdad. Syria - the Arab world's representative on the Security Council - had been thought likely to abstain but voted for the resolution.
Early in the day, the support of Russia was not assured, but it, too, backed the U.S. approach.
Even Bush's father could not secure a unanimous vote in 1990 for a resolution to confront Iraq after Hussein had invaded Kuwait.
For the president, the vote, coming after the Republicans' sweeping victories in the midterm elections Tuesday, topped off a remarkably successful week.
Under the resolution, U.N. inspectors would have immediate, unconditional access to suspected Iraqi weapons sites. Any defiance would be reviewed by the Security Council and would entail "serious consequences" - understood to mean war.
But the resolution in no way constrains Bush from launching a war, without further U.N. authorization, if he concludes that the Security Council has not responded quickly or forcefully enough.
If, however, Iraq complies at every step with the resolution - a scenario that United States officials doubt would ever happen - war might be avoided, and Hussein's regime could be left in power, U.S. officials said.
Hussein's first test will come within days. By Friday, Iraq must formally accept the conditions of the resolution. Hussein must then admit U.N. inspectors, who would enter Iraq on Nov. 18.
Within a month, the regime must also make a complete disclosure of its weapons programs.
In mid-February, the inspectors would report back to the Security Council.
Iraqi officials have said they were willing to let inspectors back in the country. But they have also complained that there was no reason for a new resolution warning of consequences. Yesterday, Iraqi officials said they were examining the new resolution and would decide on a response.
Hours before the vote, the Iraqi trade minister, Mohammad Mahdi Saleh, asserted that the resolution was merely a pretext for a military campaign against his country.
"The object of [a new] resolution would not be to verify the situation of Iraq mass destruction weapons," Saleh said, "but to provide causes for the United States to attack."
In London, Bush's staunchest ally against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, responded to the vote with his own stern warning for Hussein.
"Saddam must now make his choice, and my message to him is this," Blair said. "Disarm or you face force. There must be no more games, no more deceit, no more prevarication, obstruction or defiance."
The tense weeks ahead will test Iraq's willingness to undergo a sharp reversal in policy. During the past 11 years, Hussein has either tried to stifle weapons inspections or has refused to allow inspectors into his country. Meantime, the Security Council will be trying to sustain its unified front against Iraq.
A senior administration official said the United States had an "excruciatingly difficult" time persuading wary members of the council to back a new resolution. And while the vote sent a powerful message, it was no guarantee that the United States would avoid international resistance if it launched an attack.
U.S. officials said they were pleased that the resolution did not impede Bush's freedom to wage war against Iraq without further authorization from the United Nations.
But Russian officials noted that they, along with French officials, succeeded in ensuring there would be no automatic trigger to use force and that the Security Council would discuss how to respond to any further Iraqi defiance.
Free to attack
At the same time, the resolution does not bar any country from using force, even before the Security Council has finished discussing how to react to Iraq's behavior. Indeed, Bush served warning yesterday that the United States remains free to attack whenever it decides the time is right.
"The United States has agreed to discuss any material breach with the Security Council - but without jeopardizing our freedom of action to defend our country," he said.
The president said he would consider any "delay or defiance" by Baghdad to be "a clear signal that the Iraqi regime has once again abandoned the path of voluntary compliance."
The vote at the United Nations marked an end to four years of acrimonious division in the world body over how to confront Iraq.
The unity that followed the 1991 U.S.-led Persian Gulf war collapsed in 1998, with France, Russia and China opposing the use of force against Iraq and pushing for an easing of tough economic sanctions against Hussein's regime.
Buried in the U.N. resolution is a promise that if Iraq fully complied, it could see an end to sanctions that were imposed after it invaded Kuwait 12 years ago and that are thought to have caused lasting damage to the lives of ordinary Iraqis.
In the debate of the past eight weeks, three nations - France, Russia and China - continued to express opposition to military force before weapons inspectors were given a chance to return to Iraq. Only in the final day before the vote did France and Russia, who hold veto power as permanent Security Council members, extend their support for the resolution.
Yesterday's biggest surprise came when Syria, the Arab world's sole voice on the council, voted for the resolution.
Though Syria had backed the 1991 war to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, it has since become one of Hussein's closest allies and, U.S. officials say, has profited handsomely from the smuggling of Iraqi oil.
The Arab world generally has voiced fears about how another war would affect the region.
Many other world leaders applauded the resolution, though in language more temperate than Bush's. "The message of the international community is clear," said President Jacques Chirac of France. "It has united to tell Iraq that it is now time to cooperate fully with the United Nations."
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, who had angered Bush this year by expressing stern opposition to the aggressive U.S. approach to Iraq, said that "Bush's decision to choose the Security Council and multilateralism has proven to be the correct way."
Risk by Bush
Indeed, when he challenged the United Nations in September to confront Iraq or essentially become irrelevant, Bush risked stalling a campaign - pushed by hard-liners in his administration - to topple Hussein. And during the past several weeks, the White House yielded ground as it pressed for a unanimous vote. It agreed, for example, that any act of noncompliance by Iraq would be addressed by the Security Council.
Two senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed that the goal of removing Hussein's regime remained the policy of the United States and that Baghdad is still in violation of more than a dozen previous U.N. resolutions. One of the officials stressed that Hussein has an opportunity, though a restricted one, to hold on to power.
"We are giving him one last chance to disarm," the other official added. "And if disarmament does not take place, the regime does not change its stripes, so to speak, and refuses to cooperate, then there will be a regime change by force."