WASHINGTON -- The United States mounted an uphill drive yesterday to win international backing for war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, joining with Britain and Spain to propose a new United Nations resolution declaring that Iraq has missed its "final opportunity" to disarm peacefully.
The resolution could be the final diplomatic step before a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple its regime, barring a decision by Hussein to go into exile.
It sets no deadline for U.N. Security Council action, but U.S. and British officials said they want a vote soon after the first week of March. Hans Blix, one of the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, will issue his next report on Iraq's cooperation with weapons inspections on March 7.
The United States is five votes short of the nine council votes needed to pass the resolution. It also faces a possible veto from France or Russia, which, together with Germany, argued yesterday for a rival plan. Those three nations would seek a gradual disarmament of Iraq over four months -- an approach the United States rejects.
With diplomatic options dwindling, President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said Iraq's failure to disarm had brought America to "the verge of war."
The 12-paragraph resolution the United States is pushing states that the Security Council "decides that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it" to comply with previous U.N. demands.
To try to gain the backing of council members that are reluctant to endorse a war, the resolution does not explicitly authorize military action. Rather, it notes that the Security Council has repeatedly warned Iraq, most recently in a resolution unanimously approved in November, that it would incur "serious consequences" -- understood to mean war -- if it failed to abandon its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The new resolution declares that Iraq filed a weapons declaration containing "errors and omissions," and had failed to cooperate in carrying out the November resolution. As a result, it implied that Iraq had fallen into "further material breach" -- grounds for war.
Turning up pressure on the council, Bush said yesterday: "We're going to work with the members of the Security Council in the days ahead to make it clear to Saddam that the demands of the world and the United Nations will be enforced. One way or the other, Saddam Hussein, for the sake of peace and for the security of the American people, will be disarmed."
He stressed that he would allow just "days" for diplomacy.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the new resolution amounts to an "up or down" decision on whether the council is prepared to enforce the November resolution.
The new resolution ran into an immediate challenge from France, which has assumed the most aggressive role among nations trying to prevent Bush from going to war. With Russia and Germany, France circulated a plan for intensified inspections and timetables for determining whether Iraq has dismantled its nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs. It said all the possibilities for inspections "have not yet been explored."
The French plan could postpone military action for months, by setting a date for a full assessment of the inspections 120 days from early March. Under the plan, though, inspectors could report back to the Security Council before then if Iraq interfered with their efforts.
U.S. officials rejected the French proposal, with Rice saying it amounted to an admission that "what's happening now is not working." It is illogical, she said, to believe that Hussein would comply if there were simply more inspectors.
U.S. officials acknowledged that they face bare-knuckle competition for up to six swing votes on the Security Council.
"The diplomacy will be very intense," Rice told reporters. She said the United States was not open to making deals with the Iraqi leadership that would tolerate "a little compliance" or a schedule for compliance.
Though Bush has declared that he has enough authority from past resolutions to go to war, his failure to win nine votes for the new resolution could mean waging war against the wishes of a majority of the council. This would put America's closest allies, such as Britain, in a politically delicate position, because those nations face domestic opposition to a war without council approval.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair "has made it clear that a new resolution is a high political priority," Britain's U.N. ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, said last night on PBS' The Newshour With Jim Lehrer.
The United States hopes over the next two weeks to line up nine votes for its resolution and to then confront France with a choice of going along or vetoing the will of a council majority.
France and other nations seeking to do business in post-war Iraq will be warned that a new Iraqi government "will know who its friends and supporters are and will not look kindly on a country that had an opportunity to free the Iraqi people and disarm the regime and refused to be part of it," a Bush administration official said.
Some outside analysts suggested, though, that if the United States and Britain feel they need the backing of a new U.N. resolution, they will be forced to negotiate with France.
Negotiating for support for war outside the council has proved costly in the case of Turkey, a NATO ally. Washington had been pressing Turkey for permission to base troops there. Bush sent Turkish leaders a letter yesterday spelling out a deal that includes $6 billion in direct aid and billions more in loans. Turkey's parliament is expected to give final approval to the deal in coming days.
Talks with Security Council members are also clouded by signs of grudging cooperation from Baghdad.
Iraq is weighing an order from Blix to destroy missiles and missile parts that violate a U.N. range limit of 90 miles. Destruction of the missiles is likely to be promoted by France and other countries as a sign that effective disarmament of Iraq is under way.
Rice said Hussein can be expected to repeat soon a familiar pattern. "Whenever he's under tremendous pressure, he puts forward a little cooperation in hopes that he can relieve the pressure. And then he goes back to cheating and retreating and deceiving again."
The White House was equally dismissive of Hussein's challenge to Bush, made in an interview with Dan Rather of CBS News, for a live debate on international television and radio.
"This is not about a debate," Fleischer said. "This is about disarmament and complying with the world's instructions that Iraq disarm."