WASHINGTON - Its hopes dwindling for United Nations support of war against Iraq, the Bush administration reversed itself yesterday and said it would delay a Security Council vote until next week and might even drop plans for a vote altogether.
The statements ran counter to President Bush's insistence last week that the United States would push for a vote by the council "no matter what the whip count is."
But with France and Russia threatening to veto any resolution that authorizes an attack and with other council members withholding their votes, the administration lacks enough support now to win U.N. backing.
Should the United States choose to drop all diplomatic efforts, Bush would be free to invade Iraq at any time. He has said that if the United Nations failed to compel Iraq to disarm, he would lead a military coalition to topple Saddam Hussein's regime and destroy its weapons of mass destruction.
The U.N. resolution the United States offered to delay until next week sets a deadline for Iraq to cooperate fully in its disarmament or face attack. The delay would give Britain, which is desperate to gain U.N. authorization for war, a few days to try to forge a compromise.
Until yesterday, the Bush administration had insisted on a vote in the United Nations this week, no matter the outcome. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell suggested yesterday that there might not be a vote at all despite Bush's demand that the 15 Security Council members stand up and be counted.
"The options remain - go for a vote and see what members say, or not go for a vote," Powell told a congressional committee. "All the options that you can imagine are before us, and we'll be examining them today, tomorrow and into the weekend."
A decision to abandon U.N. diplomacy would deprive Bush of international approval for military action. It would also raise grave doubts about the Security Council's ability to deal with serious security threats.
A senior White House official said last night: "We're still working the diplomatic side hard. There are so many different variables at play. We're hopeful we'll get the votes. But one way or another, Saddam Hussein will be disarmed."
The likelihood of endorsement for the American position grew even bleaker during a Security Council meeting yesterday that one council diplomat described as "complete and utter chaos." Competing proposals began to emerge that lacked any military "trigger" if Iraq failed to comply.
As it considered whether to abandon its drive for U.N. authorization, the Bush administration faced another troubling prospect: that another council member would submit a resolution calling for a weaker, drawn-out plan to disarm Iraq without a military threat. The United States would have to veto such a resolution, further isolating itself in the United Nations.
The Bush administration heaped blame on France for the lack of progress in the Security Council. U.S. officials said the French refusal to consider a British-drafted compromise all but doomed chances of persuading the six publicly undecided nations on the council to support it, despite frantic telephone diplomacy by Bush and Powell over the past few days.
Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, complained that France "said it will veto a resolution no matter what."
"This is not the way to disarm Saddam Hussein," he said. "This is not the way to have a peaceful outcome."
Fleischer said France had "looked at the British proposal, and they rejected it before Iraq rejected it. If that's not an unreasonable veto, what is?"
With a flurry of phone calls, Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain have been trying to win over the six uncommitted members of the council: Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Angola, Cameroon and Guinea.
In a bid for a compromise, Britain has proposed a series of steps that Iraq would have to take within a short period to avoid war. They include allowing 30 Iraqi weapons scientists to be interviewed abroad, and accounting for or destroying suspected stocks of chemical and biological agents and missile and drone delivery systems.
As part of the compromise, the original resolution would be revised to make the military threat less explicit.
Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, backed off yesterday from a demand that Hussein also give a televised confession. He said Hussein could instead issue a written statement in Arabic admitting that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction and vowing to comply with U.N. mandates.
While turning up the heat on France, the United States failed to throw its own support solidly behind the British proposal, with Powell telling Congress, "Not all of us have bought all of the various elements of the six-test language, but we are certainly working closely with the British, with the Spanish, and many others."
Spain, which also holds a seat on the council, is aligned with the United States and Britain.
American officials fear that each of the British "tests," or benchmarks, could produce a new debate on the extent of Iraqi compliance, further paralyzing the council. Hans Blix, one of the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, told the council in a closed-door meeting that he could provide an "interim assessment" in 10 days on whether Iraq had complied with the British demands.
The White House statements about France followed phone calls Wednesday between French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and both Powell and Straw.
In those calls, de Villepin repeated France's "red lines" - a refusal to accept an ultimatum or an automatic resort to force. France insists that war should become an option only after a methodical effort to disarm Iraq by U.N. inspectors, a process that Blix has said would take months.
De Villepin said in a statement yesterday that France supported efforts "to give Iraq a realistic time frame in which to achieve effective disarmament."
In a diplomatic setback on another front, Baghdad refused to accept a high-level Arab League delegation that planned to visit Iraq in a "last-ditch effort to bring about a peaceful settlement," according to Hussein Hassouna, the league's ambassador to Washington. The group had been urged to go to Iraq by, among others, Powell, who hoped that members could persuade Hussein to cooperate fully with inspectors or go into exile.
But Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, renewed another proposal, presented by France and backed by Brazil: a summit of world leaders to try to avert war. The Bush administration has discouraged the idea of such a summit.
In a sign, meanwhile, that American military preparations are nearing completion, the Pentagon moved B-2 stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to bases near Iraq.
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations said Baghdad would deliver a letter to U.N. inspectors this week accounting for stocks of anthrax and VX nerve agents that Iraq says have been destroyed.
But the Associated Press reported that inspectors said they do not expect the letter to contain any new information about the stocks.