WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that "there is little reason to hope" that Saddam Hussein will give up his weapons of mass destruction, but the Iraqi leader made a late bid to forestall a military attack by inviting the two chief United Nations weapons inspectors to Baghdad.
On the eve of a three-nation summit that will assess whether diplomacy still has a chance, Bush continued to prepare the American public for war yesterday, saying in his radio address that "crucial days lie ahead for the free nations of the world."
With war becoming ever more likely - perhaps within days - France, Russia and Germany issued a joint statement saying there was no reason for military action, and tens of thousands of protesters took their anti-war message to the streets in cities around the world, including Washington.
The president flies today to the remote Azores islands in the Atlantic for an 11th-hour meeting with two of his closest allies, Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, that could mark the transition between diplomacy and military action.
The three leaders will discuss whether any tools remain, short of war, to get Hussein to disarm completely or give up power now that efforts to forge a common international approach to Iraq through the U.N. Security Council have virtually collapsed.
Many diplomats expect the three leaders, with Portugal as their host, to abandon attempts to win Security Council approval of a resolution authorizing war.
Bush has said repeatedly that he is prepared to go to war without U.N. approval. Tomorrow was the deadline set in the proposed resolution for Iraq to demonstrate that it was seriously disarming or face a war.
Bush, in his radio address, said, "Governments are now showing whether their stated commitments to liberty and security are words alone - or convictions they're prepared to act upon.
"There is little reason to hope that Saddam Hussein will disarm," Bush said. If war is required, American forces "have been given every tool and every resource to achieve victory," he said, adding that every effort will be made to spare innocent Iraqi lives.
In a telephone call to Blair from Bush at Camp David, the two leaders discussed preparations for today's meeting and "continuing diplomatic efforts in capitals around the world and at the U.N.," a White House official said.
Bush also called Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of his Iraq policy, telling him he is "going the extra mile with the diplomatic front," but saying that November's U.N. resolution ordering Iraq to disarm "must be enforced," the official said.
"The prospect of military action is now much more probable, and I greatly regret that," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the BBC, but refused to say war was inevitable. "We know Saddam Hussein only responds to pressure and only at the last minute."
With more than 40,000 British troops dispatched to the Persian Gulf, Britain would be America's biggest military partner in a war against Iraq.
But the past week has strained the close ties between Britain and the United States, with the Bush administration distancing itself from desperate efforts by Blair's envoys to broker a compromise resolution at the United Nations.
British officials have clung to the view, as Straw put it yesterday, that "the best chance of peaceful disarmament is when [Hussein] is faced with unanimity across the international community."
Most Bush administration officials, by contrast, don't believe that Iraq will ever disarm while Hussein is in power.
Blair faces strong domestic opposition to a war, and the possible resignation of two members of his Cabinet if he joins Bush in going to war without a U.N. mandate.
Aznar, who also faces opposition in Spain to war, is in a less difficult political position because he has said he does not plan to serve beyond his current term, which ends next year. In an interview in Newsweek's March 17 edition, he said, "I don't want my country to be standing on the sidelines of history."
Iraq's invitation to the two chief weapons inspectors appeared timed to bolster the case of Security Council member countries that want the inspections to continue. The United States and its allies say that Iraq is continuing to hide large quantities of chemical and biological agents and that allowing more time for inspections would be pointless.
Iraq had been widely expected to make a new show of cooperation as the prospect of war drew closer.
The invitation urged the chief inspectors to arrive at the "earliest suitable date" to accelerate cooperation, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said.
Neither Hans Blix, who is in charge of the search for Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, nor Mohamed ElBaradei, who monitors Iraq's nuclear program, was ready to respond yesterday.
Interviewed briefly on CNN, Blix said he would speak with ElBaradei and the president of the Security Council and give "serious thought" to his answer. He said of the invitation, "I certainly wouldn't call it a stunt."
Within the United Nations, the Iraqi move was greeted warily, with officials saying Blix and ElBaradei would want to gauge Security Council reaction and be fairly certain that any mission would produce solid results before accepting.
But one official said that if Iraq were to offer important evidence of its weapons programs and a meeting with Hussein, the inspectors would find it difficult not to go.
As Iraq's letter arrived at the United Nations, France, Russia and Germany issued their joint statement calling for foreign ministers to meet this week in the Security Council to set a timetable for Iraq to disarm. France and Russia have threatened to veto any U.N. resolution that sets an ultimatum with an automatic resort to war, and Germany has refused to support a war against Iraq.
"We reaffirm that nothing justifies in the present circumstances putting a stop to the inspection process and resorting to the use of force," the statement said.
The three nations are expected to give a strong push this week to plans being prepared by Blix for the disarmament of Iraq and the creation of a long-term monitoring system to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction in the future. The United States had tried to discourage Blix from delivering such a report, but other council members insisted on it.
A U.S. official familiar with a draft of the plan said it calls for a significant increase in Blix's staff and equipment and would take several months to "get up to speed."
Even French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin indicated that Blix's plan would probably be rendered moot by war. "It is difficult to imagine what could stop this machine," he told French television.