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Britain to Offer Iraq Weapons Deadline

March 7, 2003

UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ As opposition hardened against an Iraqi war, Britain offered Thursday to compromise on a U.S.-backed resolution by giving Saddam Hussein a short deadline to prove he has eliminated all banned weapons or face an attack.

With some 300,000 U.S. troops massing for battle with Iraq, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made clear that any compromise must still include an authorization for military action. But Straw’s demand was unlikely to be acceptable to key council powers that favor more weapons inspections to disarm Iraq peacefully.

Straw spoke hours before President Bush was to hold a rare prime-time news conference in an effort to counter stiff opposition to his plans for disarming Iraq. Bush has said he is willing to wage war even without new U.N. authorization.

Earlier Thursday, China threw its support behind France, Germany and Russia, which have vowed to prevent the resolution’s passage.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to council members to discuss the crisis calmly, noting there were several proposals on the table.

``The positions are very hard now,″ he said. ``I am encouraging people to strive for a compromise to seek common ground,″ adding, ``to make concessions, you get concessions.″

Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in New York on Thursday for crucial talks to try to win support for the resolution from undecided council members. But Powell faced an uphill struggle to get nine ``yes″ votes and avoid a veto by one of the permanent members opposed to war soon _ France, Russia and China.

He said the threat posed by Saddam must be dealt with now, not after thousands of people die when his ``horrible weapons″ of mass destruction are used.

Powell and other foreign ministers will attend a Security Council meeting on Friday where chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and his counterpart, Mohamed ElBaradei, will brief members on Iraq’s cooperation in eliminating its banned weapons. For many council members, Friday’s reports will be key in deciding whether to vote for the U.S.-backed resolution.

ElBaradei, the chief nuclear inspector, suggested Thursday he would tell the council that abandoning the weapons inspections makes little sense so long as the Iraqis are actively cooperating.

``That’s clearly the gist of my presentation: In my area, inspection is working. We are making progress. There’s no reason to scuttle the process,″ ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press on a flight from Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered.

In a hint of own report, Blix said Wednesday that Iraq is now cooperating ``a great deal more″ in providing evidence about its weapons programs and engaging in ``real disarmament.″ He said he would welcome more time for inspections, but wouldn’t ask for it.

As foreign ministers from 11 of the 15 council nations headed to New York for Friday’s briefings, the looming decision over war or peace created tension among diplomats of all 191 countries at the United Nations.

The crisis was the buzz in the corridors, and council ambassadors were the focus of attention as they moved between tables in the Delegate’s Lounge, discussing the British suggestion _ and exploring other ideas.

With the United States and Britain willing to launch an attack without U.N. authorization, the United Nations was preparing for the possibility of war. Annan’s spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said the world body had asked Washington for as much notice as possible should a military campaign be ordered so that U.N. staff working in Iraq can be evacuated.

Straw told a news conference after meeting Annan that Britain was prepared to negotiate language in the resolution, which was co-sponsored by the United States and Spain. He also said he was open to possible amendments that address concerns raised by the divided council.

He did not spell out the details during a news conference. But British diplomats floated the idea of attaching a short deadline with the resolution, either as an amendment or a statement that would accompany it. The deadline would give Saddam a brief period to prove he has no more banned weapons, or face war.

``We are open to discussion on the wording, but the principle we are holding firm to,″ he said, emphasizing that Iraq has squandered its final opportunity to disarm peacefully.

U.S. diplomats in recent days have signaled a willingness to hear suggestions on the wording so long as there were no changes to the substance of the draft. U.S. officials said Washington had ``not completely signed off″ on the British ideas.

British diplomats said discussions were going on among capitals and at the United Nations, but it was too early to talk about the amount of time Saddam would be given. Several council diplomats expressed surprise that British hadn’t approached them to discuss their ideas.

Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Gennady Gatilov said his government hasn’t been approached yet about the British suggestion, but he said talk of a short deadline on the existing resolution ``sounds cosmetic.″

``Just to add something to the existing draft in terms of putting deadlines, short deadlines, one week _ of course, it will not fly because it doesn’t change ... the substance of the draft,″ Gatilov said.

Pakistan’s U.N. Ambassador Munir Akram, whose country is considered a swing vote, said he also hadn’t heard directly from the British. But he said his understanding was that they were suggesting ``a delayed fuse.″

Asked whether that was acceptable, Akram replied: ``If you don’t want to set off the firecracker in the first place, whether the fuse is lit or not is immaterial.″

There were hints of alternative compromise ideas.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who will represent the European Union at the Security Council meeting, will present ``a new possibility″ with benchmarks that Iraq must implement ``in a specific time frame,″ said Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Panos Belglitis.

This appeared very similar to a Canadian compromise proposal that would give Saddam until the end of the month to carry out a series of remaining disarmament tasks.

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