WASHINGTON - Short of the needed Security Council votes and facing a possible veto, the United States and Britain struggled yesterday to fashion a compromise resolution that would win United Nations backing for a war against Iraq.
Britain, America's closest ally, proposed inserting a deadline for Iraq to disarm or face war, but Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said at the United Nations that he would consider "any constructive suggestions" for improving the resolution proposed last week by the United States, Britain and Spain.
"Nothing is off the table at this point," a U.S. official said as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell went to New York yesterday to join the talks with other foreign ministers. The Bush administration is prepared to consider changes provided they don't retreat from the requirement that Iraq must fully disarm or face military action.
At a prime-time news conference last night, President Bush appeared to give Powell broad latitude for negotiations. Bush did not reject the idea of setting a deadline and demanded only that a new resolution achieve "finality" in disarming Iraq - if necessary by force.
As of yesterday, it appeared that the United States and Britain could gather at most eight votes on the 15-member council, one vote short of the nine needed for adoption. But several members seen as leaning toward the United States have voiced strong misgivings and urged the major powers to forge a compromise.
The United States and Britain want the resolution to gain the necessary votes even if it's vetoed so they can claim they have the backing of a majority in the council to go to war.
Negotiations on a possible compromise intensified as China endorsed a statement issued Wednesday by two other veto-wielding council members, France and Russia, that threatened to block any Security Council resolution authorizing a war.
Wednesday's statement, joined by Germany, a member of the Security Council without veto power, deepened a trans-Atlantic rift over war in Iraq and America's assertion of power around the world.
A public Security Council meeting today threatens to display once again the deep divisions among the council's most powerful members. Senior American officials believe such a spectacle encourages Saddam Hussein in thinking he can stave off an attack. The council will hear new reports from the two chief U.N. inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, both of whom contend they are making limited progress in disarming Iraq and want more time.
President Bush, meanwhile, worked to ensure his own base of support overseas remained solid, telephoning Vaclav Klaus, the new president of the Czech Republic, and Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, both of whom have supported the United States' hard line. Neither are on the Security Council, although Portugal wields influence with Angola, a former colony that is one of the swing votes.
The president also spoke with President Vicente Fox of Mexico, another swing vote, but there was no indication he had won Fox's support.
Before heading to New York, Powell told a congressional subcommittee, "We are being tested, the Security Council of the United Nations and the international community are being tested."
The idea of setting a deadline was raised and abandoned several weeks ago as the United States and Britain drafted a resolution declaring that Iraq had missed its last chance to disarm.
The new proposal floated by Britain would allow a "certain amount of time" for Iraq to comply fully with U.N. demands that it give up chemical and biological weapons and prove that it had dismantled its nuclear-weapons program. At the end of that period, force would be authorized.
Because of its automatic "trigger," such a proposal would be unacceptable to France, a French official said. Russia and China would likely side with France. But the delay in launching a war might win over undecided council members.
The original American-British draft set off a fierce, high-level campaign for votes, with the United States, Britain, France and Russia all using their global connections to pressure the six nations that are considered swing votes on the council.
While Bush has repeatedly insisted that the United States would lead a coalition to disarm Iraq even if he failed to win council support, Britain and supporters of the United States badly want the U.N.'s imprimatur on any invasion.
"I don't want to go outside the United Nations," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
Adding to the pressure for a resolution, Turkish political leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government would wait for a Security Council decision before seeking a new vote in parliament to allow the United States to base some 60,000 troops in Turkey for an invasion of Iraq from the north.
Among other proposals is Canada's, which would establish key disarmament tasks and a deadline of March 28 by which these must be completed.
Top U.S. officials don't believe Iraq will disarm as long as Hussein remains in power, and Bush has said "regime change" is American policy.
"It appears the only way, perhaps, to get him to disarm is to remove the regime and disarm that nation of its weapons of mass destruction," Powell told Congress yesterday. "But even at this late date, even at this late date, it is possible to find a peaceful solution if Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime would do what it has been asked to do by the international community for all these many years."