UNITED NATIONS -- The United States, joined by key allies Britain and Spain, proposed delivering an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein: Give up banned weapons by March 17 or face war. But a powerful bloc of nations stood firm Friday against any new resolution that would authorize military action.
With 250,000 allied troops poised to attack Iraq and the White House warning that time for diplomacy is running out, the 15-nation U.N. Security Council emerged even more polarized after Friday's high-stakes council meeting.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters the council would vote next week on the latest proposal, an amended U.S.-British-Spanish resolution that paves the way for war. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said he asked council members "to be prepared to vote as early as Tuesday."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin rejected the idea of a deadline and came with his own plan: a summit at the U.N. Security Council with heads of state deciding the course of war and peace. But Powell dismissed the idea, saying he saw no need for one when key powers have been expressing their views "openly and candidly."
Facing strong opposition to war, the United States and Britain hoped the offer of a deadline would win over undecided nations on the council.
But there were no takers.
Angola and Chile, for example, indicated afterward they might abstain. Pakistan also appeared to be leaning away from the U.S. position.
For weeks, Washington's game plan has been to muster the nine votes necessary for the resolution's passage and then persuade permanent members France, Russia and China to abstain rather than wield their vetoes.
But France and Russia warned Friday that they will do everything possible to prevent the resolution's adoption, and only Bulgaria joined the resolution's sponsors in speaking up for the idea of a deadline.
President Bush, Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice planned to lobby allies by telephone until the vote. Bush spoke by phone with the Chilean President Ricardo Lagos.
If the resolution is defeated, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have said they would be prepared to go to war anyway with a coalition of willing nations. But both know that U.N. support would give the war international legitimacy and guarantee that members of the organization share the costs of rebuilding Iraq.
Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gasper Martins and others said the United States needs to be open to negotiations to gain support before the vote. The United States gave no indication it would be open to another compromise.
Council ambassadors met privately for 3 1/2 hours late Friday to discuss the amended resolution and agreed to meet again Monday afternoon. Diplomats said the open council meeting arguments were repeated behind closed doors.
Late Friday, diplomats said a two-page Arab proposal, backed by Saudi Arabia and circulated by Pakistani diplomats, was designed to encourage Iraqis to revolt in order to prevent war. It would offer an amnesty to all Iraqi officials who cooperate with inspectors and suggests military force could be used to protect Iraqis under threat from their own regime.
Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram denied any connection to the paper, which he called "one of many ideas floating around." Pakistan doesn't plan to officially introduce the draft unless Arab ambassadors can persuade the major council powers to support it, the diplomats said.
The tense council meeting earlier in the day was peppered with dramatic moments. There was soft applause for the remarks by both British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his French counterpart, and some chuckles when Straw looked directly at de Villepin, and repeatedly referred to him by his first name, Dominique -- a diplomatic no-no.
"Dominique also said, the choice before us is disarmament by peace or disarmament by war," Straw said. "Dominique, that is a false choice."
De Villepin stared back at Straw, stone-faced.
Referring to Saddam, the British minister declared, "He doesn't need more time to comply. As he showed this week, he can act with astonishing speed when he wants to."
The amended resolution declares that "Iraq will have failed to take the final opportunity" the council offered in November "unless, on or before March 17, 2003, the council concludes that Iraq has demonstrated full, unconditional, immediate and active cooperation in accordance with its disarmament obligations."
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called the amended resolution an ultimatum that would lead "in a very short period to military action," because the council would then have to vote by March 17 to stop a war. Council members said the United States would almost certainly veto any resolution to stop a war.
"We cannot accept an ultimatum as long as inspectors are reporting cooperation," de Villepin told the council. He said a deadline would be "a pretext for war."
"France will not allow a resolution to pass that authorizes the automatic use of force," he said.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Yuri Fedotov, told the BBC: "Russia is determined to do everything to not let pass this resolution."
China said it opposed the resolution but did not threaten a veto.
The occasion for the Security Council meeting was a report by the chief weapons inspectors on efforts to disarm Iraq. But the diplomatic showdown overshadowed their presentations.
Chief inspector Hans Blix was generally upbeat, saying Baghdad's cooperation "can be seen as active, or even proactive." Top nuclear inspector Mohammed ElBaradei made his strongest statement yet in support of Iraq's efforts.
"In the past three weeks, possibly as a result of ever-increasing pressure by the international community, Iraq has been forthcoming in its cooperation," ElBaradei said. "I do hope that Iraq will continue to expand the scope and accelerate the pace of its cooperation."
But Powell insisted that Saddam's performance was "still a catalog of noncooperation."
Powell said the world body "must not walk away" from supporting force to disarm Iraq, despite some progress achieved through the pressure of international inspections.
In his report, Blix said Iraq had recently provided additional documentation on anthrax and the VX nerve agent. "Many have been found to restate what Iraq has already declared," he said. Iraq claims to have destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction.
Blix said inspectors had been unable to verify some U.S. claims about hidden Iraqi weapons and he asked again for more information about suspect sites.
Still, Blix couldn't say Iraq was fully complying with its obligations. He also plans to brief the council on a 167-page document he has prepared listing the series of outstanding disarmament issues.
ElBaradei also criticized U.S. intelligence, saying his analysis now definitively showed that suspect aluminum tubes were not destined for equipment that could be used to refine uranium for nuclear weapons use.
"Extensive field investigation and document analysis have failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these 81mm tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets," ElBaradei said.
Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri said his country has no weapons of mass destruction. He left Friday's meeting feeling confident the U.S. resolution wouldn't pass.
"They don't have the votes," he said. "I don't think the international community wants to go to war right now."