UNITED NATIONS -- After seven weeks of diplomatic wrangling, the U.N. Security Council seems certain to approve a new resolution soon that will govern weapons inspections in Iraq. But precisely what it will say is still being debated.
Diplomats say few flashpoints remain in hammering out an agreement on a draft resolution that the United States and Britain presented last week. The draft calls for stringent weapons inspections in Iraq and warns of consequences if Saddam Hussein does not comply.
The key questions are about the term "material breach." Some delegates think those words, which refer to a failure to comply with U.N. resolutions, are a "hidden trigger," meaning Washington could interpret them as a green light to attack Iraq.
"The triggers are buried deeper, but they are still there," a delegate from China, speaking on condition of anonymity, said after Wednesday's Security Council meeting.
The draft resolution declares that Iraq has been in "material breach" of past U.N. resolutions for years. The council has declared Iraq in material breach on several occasions in the past decade, the United States maintains.
Several nations, notably France, Russia and China, have said they worry that the U.S. might use the words as justification to start a war with Saddam, regardless of the work or findings of weapons inspectors. But their concerns appeared to be lessening, and talk of a consensus was growing.
Bridging trust gap
One British diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said the remaining negotiations essentially would "be about finding words or other ways to bridge a gap of trust."
Russian U.N. Ambassador Sergei Lavrov said, "We don't want automaticity in the use of force and we believe that inspectors should be given the mandate, which is a help for them, not a burden for them. And on the second one I think we are moving, and I hope we will move on the first one."
A French delegate, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said France would accept "material breach" if it is "put in the context in which we are sure that there will be a new decision, at least a new assessment, by the Security Council" if Iraq thwarts inspectors.
The current version of the draft calls for weapons inspectors to report any problems they encounter in Iraq to the Security Council, and for the council to convene immediately to determine how to proceed. But it does not prevent council members from taking military action before the council meets. The United States has said it would not restrict its right to go to war without the council's approval.
The U.S.-British position was bolstered this week when two top weapons inspectors signaled broad support for the draft in a meeting with the council. On Wednesday, the inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, went to Washington to consult with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Blix is the chief U.N. weapons inspector, and ElBaradei heads the International Atomic Energy Agency.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the meeting was part of consultations that Blix has had with all the heads of the Security Council countries. Fleischer said Bush wanted "to stress how the United States wants to work with the inspectors to make sure they are able to carry out whatever the ultimate decision of the U.N. is, which is the disarmament of Saddam Hussein."
A senior Bush administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Blix was negotiating with the Russians and the French on how to word the new resolution.
The official said it was very likely that the council would approve a resolution that the administration would find acceptable, but that it was possible that diplomatic activity would be put on hold until after Tuesday's congressional elections.
Nine of the 15 council members must vote in favor of a resolution for it to pass, and there must not be a veto from any of the five permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.