UNITED NATIONS -- Rattled by an outpouring of anti-war sentiment, the United States and Britain began reworking a draft resolution Saturday to authorize force against Saddam Hussein.
Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the final product may be a softer text that does not explicitly call for war.
Before Friday's dramatic Security Council meeting, where weapons inspectors gave a relatively favorable accounting of Iraq's recent cooperation, U.S. and British diplomats said they had been preparing a toughly worded resolution that would give them U.N. backing for military action.
British diplomats had said then that any resolution would have to include an authorization of force. They described working versions of the draft as short, simply worded texts that found Iraq in "material breach" of its obligations and reiterated that Saddam now faces "serious consequences" as a result.
In diplomatic terms, coupling the consequences with material breach would be tantamount to an authorization.
But the measured reports by inspectors, in addition to massive global opposition to war -- expressed both in the council and in the streets -- came as a blow to their plans.
The two English-speaking allies had hoped to push through a new resolution quickly, and there had even been talk of a Saturday council meeting to introduce it. But their plans were put on hold Friday after staunch opposition -- led by France, Russia and China -- drew rare applause inside the council chamber.
British and American diplomats conceded they would need to go home, consider the views of others and soften the tone of the draft.
Situation 'very fluid'
Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram said, "The situation is very fluid and so is the language right now."
He said a resolution giving Saddam an ultimatum to relinquish power or be removed by force was still an option. But Akram said it would be very hard for Pakistan -- a key ally for the United States despite an anti-American population at home -- to vote in favor of any resolution authorizing war.
Others council members agreed.
While Secretary of State Colin Powell said after Friday's meeting that there was no talk of compromise yet, some diplomats said privately that it was the responsibility of the five council powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- to negotiate a way out of the impasse over Iraq.
Unless that happens, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are unlikely to gain U.N. support for a war to disarm Iraq. While they may be prepared to act without it, U.N. backing would offer international legitimacy and a guarantee that reconstruction costs would be shared.
Diplomats from Mexico, Chile, Angola and Bulgaria -- key swing votes thought by the United States to be likely supporters -- were considering abstaining in a vote as long as the five powers were unable to agree.
At NATO headquarters Saturday, Belgium, trying to end a bitter dispute within the NATO alliance, said it would join France and Germany in endorsing a U.S. proposal on war planning as long as it was clear that preparations to help Turkey were defensive in nature and not seen as pushing the alliance toward war against Iraq. The compromise offer was to be discussed in an urgent session Sunday.
For the past month, Germany, France and Belgium have blocked a U.S. proposal for NATO to send early warning planes, missile defenses and anti-biochemical warfare units as a precaution to Turkey, the only NATO country bordering Iraq. The other 16 NATO allies say the delay undermines the alliances credibility while sending a signal of weakness to Saddam Hussein's regime.
A Monday meeting of the European Union will be the first opportunity to gauge readiness on the continent to negotiate. On Tuesday, the Security Council is to hold an open meeting on Iraq, designed mostly to embarrass the United States by providing a forum for non-council members to air their opposition to war.
But diplomats say that by the middle of next week, Washington and London will have a better idea about how soon they can circulate a draft.
All sides acknowledge they want to avoid forcing France, Russia or China to veto the resolution. So the draft will have to be considerably reworked or be designed to be withdrawn -- a diplomatic strategy that would demonstrate Britain and the United States want U.N. support but not at any cost.
A similar situation occurred in the run-up to NATO's bombing of Kosovo in 1999 when a resolution authorizing force was withdrawn in the face of a threatened Russian veto.
At the end of the 78-day bombing campaign, the United Nations then came together to pass a resolution authorizing a U.N. administration of Kosovo and a framework for its reconstruction. Several council diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a similar play on Iraq may be the best way around the current split in the council.