WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday that he was encouraged the Bush administration may prevail in a United Nations Security Council vote that would give Iraq until March 17 to disarm or face military action.
At the same time, Powell said that a French veto of that proposal would do more to isolate France than to slow U.S. resolve to force Iraq's compliance.
"I think most of the elected 10 members are making up their judgments, their minds over this weekend and I've been in close contact with them," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press. "I'm encouraged we might get nine or 10 votes needed to get passage of the resolution, and we'll see if somebody wants to veto."
President Bush, Powell and other administration officials spent the weekend making phone calls to sway members of the Security Council. The French worked just as hard. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin left yesterday on a trip designed to influence three undecided African members of the council: Angola, Guinea and Cameroon.
In appearances on talk shows, Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, singled out France as the principal opponent to launching a military operation if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fails to comply with Security Council Resolution 1441.
Powell suggested that a veto would damage U.S-French relations.
"Even though France has been a friend of ours for many, many years, and will be a friend in the future, I think it will have a serious effect on bilateral relations at least in the short term."
Passed in November, Resolution 1441 calls for "serious consequences" if Saddam fails to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections. For the Bush administration, that phrase has always meant the use of military force.
Within the 15-member Security Council, France, Germany, Russia, Syria and China oppose a military response, saying that more time is needed for inspections.
Of those opponents, France, Russia and China are permanent members of the Security Council and can veto the British-U.S. resolution introduced Friday that calls for Iraq's compliance by March 17. Britain and the U.S. are the Security Council's other permanent members.
The new resolution, which will likely face a vote this week, needs support from nine countries to pass. It can be nullified by a single veto under U.N. rules. Standing with the U.S. on the council are Britain, Spain and Bulgaria. The three African countries being lobbied by France have not declared how they will vote, nor have three other Security Council members: Pakistan, Mexico and Chile.
Administration officials hope that Russia and China will abstain in the Security Council vote, leaving France as the sole veto power standing against the use of force.
"I think it would be unfortunate if France decided to veto this resolution in the presence of a positive vote that would pass the resolution," Powell said on Fox News Sunday. "And I think France would not be looked upon favorably in many parts of the world."
The Bush administration maintains that Hussein has failed to abide by Resolution 1441, as well as a series of other U.N. resolutions since the 1991 Persian Gulf war that required Iraq to surrender chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as its long-range missiles.
Iraq's chief liaison to the inspectors, Maj. Gen. Hossam Mohamed Amin, said Iraq destroyed six more missiles yesterday, bringing the number destroyed since March 1 to 46, almost half of Iraq's arsenal of 100 Al Samoud 2s.
Amin, pointing to examples of Iraqi cooperation, said, "We hope that this will guide (U.N. inspectors) to reach the position that Iraq is rid completely of weapons of mass destruction and to recommend to the Security Council the lifting of the unfair sanctions imposed on the courageous Iraqi people."
Iraq's call for easing the 12-year-old U.N. sanctions - a demand made Saturday by Iraqi officials and again yesterday by Amin - was met with few public expressions of support outside Iraq.
Iraq's Arab neighbors continued yesterday to try to find a diplomatic answer to the crisis. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud said in remarks published yesterday that the quickest way to resolve the Iraq crisis was for Hussein to step down.
In Britain, the pressure grew on Prime Minister Tony Blair, a strong supporter of the U.S. position. A leading member of the British government, International Development Secretary Clare Short, said Sunday she would resign if the country went to war with Iraq without the backing of a new U.N. resolution.
The U.S. and its allies now have more than 225,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region, and more arrive daily. Last week, U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, told Bush that those forces are ready to invade Iraq on the president's order.
Stephen J. Hedges is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.