WASHINGTON – An international coalition was taking shape Friday for a possible attack on Iraq after the United States declared Baghdad was in "material breach" of the U.N. resolution ordering Saddam Hussein to disclose what weapons he has in his possession.
At the White House, President Bush reiterated that, one way or another, "we will fulfill the terms" of the U.N. resolution.
"The world spoke clearly that we expect Mr. Saddam Hussein to disarm," Bush said after a meeting with U.N., Russian and European Union diplomats on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. "Yesterday's document was not encouraging. We expected him to show that he would disarm … its a long way from there."
The heads of U.N. weapons inspection teams scouring Iraq for traces of weapons of mass destruction briefed the U.N. Security Council Thursday on their findings and said Baghdad's 12,000-page arms declaration was full of holes and omissions.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States has found Iraq to be in "material breach" of the U.N. resolution, a term that could be a prelude for war, although most agree a military operation isn't imminent.
"We're serious about keeping peace," Bush said Friday. "We're serious about working with our friends in the United Nations ... Yesterday was a disappointing day for those who want peace."
In a Christmas message broadcast Friday to his country's armed forces, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was time to prepare for war.
"The key thing at the moment is to make all the preparations necessary," Blair said, "and to make sure that we are building up the capacity in the region -- both the Americans and ourselves -- and that we are able to undertake this mission if it falls to us to do so."
Describing Iraq's weapons declaration as lies, gaps and omissions, Powell said bluntly Thursday, "this situation cannot continue."
Unless Iraq "comes clean" in the weeks ahead, "I'm afraid we should be very discouraged with respect to the prospects of finding a peaceful solution," he said.
But General Hussam Mohammed Amin, the top Iraqi official dealing with U.N. weapons inspectors, said Friday that the American assessment was "an exaggerated response."
"It was political," Amin told Reuters. "Even before they were able to read and analyze the declaration, they said it had many gaps."
Unlike the United States, Britain has not said it considers Iraq in violation of the resolution, which would be one of the prerequisites for war.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday that Baghdad would have to seriously also impede the teams of weapons inspectors to merit attack. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agreed.
In Paris, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin said that if Iraq reneges on its commitments to disarm, "the Security Council, on the basis of the report of [the inspectors], should be called together to examine the array of options, including the use of force."
He also told France-Info radio, "if the international community decided to act, obviously, France would uphold its commitments."
Russia was critical of the unilateral U.S. assessment of the Iraqi document. "It is not up to individual members to make this judgment," said U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov.
France, along with Russia, had insisted that the Security Council resolution approved last month include the "two-step" process whereby the council reconvenes to decide consequences of any Iraqi violations.
Powell indicated Thursday that Bush was abiding by that process.
In another development Friday, Reuters reported that Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iraq had done little to disprove allegations it had violated Security Council resolutions by attempting to obtain materials usable in atomic weapons.
ElBaradei said Iraq admitted to trying to import aluminum tubing, which the U.S. says Baghdad wanted for enriching uranium for atomic weapons. Iraq said the tubes were meant for conventional rockets and not for centrifuges.
"We expect and we impressed on them that we need details," ElBaradei said in a television interview. "We cannot just take their word for it."
ElBaradei also said the Iraqis had been silent on allegations they had tried to get uranium from an African country.
"They denied that too in Baghdad, but again it would have been helpful to elaborate," he said.
Powell and John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, are taking the lead in what White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the "deliberate and consult" phase of Bush's showdown with Saddam.
This crucial stage may come to a head Jan. 27 when U.N. weapons inspectors must deliver a more comprehensive report on their findings.
Negroponte said he would consult with the Security Council and other American allies, while Powell promised the United States would give U.N. inspectors additional intelligence to make their hunt for Iraq's hidden weapons "more targeted and effective."
Officials said the president will spend the next five or six weeks looking for more evidence against Saddam while massing troops outside Iraq for a potential winter assault.
U.S. lawmakers counseled against a rush to war.
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, said Iraq's incomplete declaration, by itself, "is not enough to justify military force."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it is "important the United States stay patient here, stay within the framework of the United Nations, work with allies, and see where we go."
But Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said Iraq made a bad-faith declaration that "brings us closer to a war that no one wants, but only Saddam Hussein can prevent."
Meanwhile, two American warplanes fired on air-defense sites in Iraq's southern no-fly zone after an Iraqi jet entered the restricted air space, the U.S. Central Command reported on its Web site.
The coalition fighters used precision-guided weapons on the targets near An Nasiriyah, 300 miles, and Al Basrah, 200 miles south of Baghdad.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.