The United States won key support Monday from chief weapons inspectors who told the Security Council they would be better off with a new resolution that warns Iraq of consequences if it fails to cooperate.
"I think it is desirable that Iraq understands that any lack of cooperation or violation ... will call for reactions on the part of the council," said Hans Blix, the top U.N. inspector.
But Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency in charge of nuclear inspections, questioned several details in the U.S. proposal and said it was up to the council — not them — to decide whether Iraq was in compliance.
"It has been suggested that we hold war and peace in our hands [and] we decline that statement," Blix told journalists after discussing the U.S. proposal inside the Security Council. "Our job is to report."
U.S. and British officials said they would take the inspectors' opinions under advisement and come back to the council with clarifications.
The U.S. draft resolution on Iraq, written with British support, includes references to "material breach" and "serious consequences" — language some feel could authorize military action if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fails to comply with inspectors. The draft, which continues to divide council members more than six weeks into negotiations, also lays out a new regime for inspectors.
U.S. and British diplomats hoped the statements from the weapons inspectors would increase support for their draft. The two English-speaking allies want a vote by the end of the week even though diplomats say they still lack the nine votes needed to pass the resolution.
But U.S. officials sought to convince allies that Bush will confront Iraq regardless of the vote's outcome. They hope to force a choice between backing Bush or looking irrelevant as he proceeds without them.
President Bush said Saddam Hussein "has made the United Nations look foolish."
"If the United Nations doesn't have the will or the courage to disarm Saddam Hussein and if Saddam Hussein will not disarm, for the sake of peace, for the sake of freedom, the United States will lead a coalition to disarm Saddam Hussein," Bush said during a Western-state political swing.
France, Russia and China — all veto-wielding council members — oppose authorizing military force before inspectors can test Iraq's willingness to cooperate on the ground. Should Iraq obstruct the inspections, the three powerful members envision a second resolution dealing with consequences.
Russia and France are floating their own proposals favoring the two-phase approach, which has support from several other council members including Mexico — a key swing vote. Neither mentions "material breach" and the Russian proposal leaves out "serious consequences." The French plan, offered as a bridging proposal, links consequences to a report by inspectors of noncompliance.
Neither weapons inspector endorsed the U.S. plan although ElBaradei noted that the words "material breach" had appeared in a previous U.N. resolution on Iraq. Blix clearly favored some kind of warning of consequence but said it was up to the council to decide the wording. Both men said Iraq was clearly in violation of previous resolutions.
During Monday's closed-door meeting, the two arms experts were generally supportive of the U.S. ideas for inspectors, diplomats said. But they were critical of several elements, including authorization to interview Iraqis and their families outside the country and away from Iraqi government observers.
"There would be great practical difficulties in using such authority, unless there was cooperation by the Iraqi side," Blix told the council.
Blix also said the draft resolution may not give Iraq enough time to pull together a comprehensive report on its biological and chemical programs, according to diplomats. Under the U.S. plan, Iraq has 30 days from the resolution's passage to submit a detailed accounting of its weapons programs.
The council was scheduled to meet again Tuesday to continue negotiations. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he hoped the council would come up with a resolution, "but it will require some compromises."
All 15 members of the council say they want weapons inspectors back in Iraq quickly, now that Baghdad has agreed to their return after nearly four years. But fundamental differences remain over how tough a new inspections regime should be.
In an interview published Monday in Le Figaro, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin raised the possibility of a foreign ministers-level Security Council meeting to smooth out the differences.
American and British officials were noncommittal to such a meeting. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with de Villepin and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw Monday as U.S. officials said time was running out.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said the new U.S. draft resolution "tries to deal with Iraqi people as a people under the mandate of a colonial power. It is, in a few words, a declaration to colonize Iraq in the name of the United Nations."