One day after the United States declared Iraq to be in "material breach" of a U.N. Security Council resolution, an international coalition began to take shape for a possible attack on the Baghdad regime.
In a Christmas message broadcast Friday to his country's armed forces, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told them it was time to prepare for war, according to Reuters.
"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, submitted two weeks ago, as 12,200 pages of lies, gaps and omissions, Secretary of State Colin Powell put it bluntly Thursday: "This situation cannot continue."
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 by telephone from Baghdad. "Even before they were able to read and analyze the declaration, they said it had many gaps."
Unlike the U.S., 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. So far the inspections have been going well.
Straw said Saddam had his "finger on the trigger" of war, but added, "this disclosure does not, of itself, trigger military action."
Reuters also reported that the U.S. had asked the German government for 2,000 troops to guard American bases in Germany by the end of January.
A German defense ministry spokesman said that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who campaigned against the U.S. policy on Iraq before narrowly winning re-election in September, had 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 that "if the international community decided to act, obviously, France would uphold its commitments."
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, saying the United States will "make the case to the council that Iraq has totally missed this opportunity" for peaceful resolution.
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 Thursday.
In Iraq itself, two American warplanes fired on air-defense sites in the 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.
President Bush was expected to speak on the Iraq situation Friday during a meeting with U.N., Russian and European Union diplomats who are in Washington to consult on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Bush could also use the meeting to lobby the foreign ministers and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Iraq, White House aides said.
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," Powell said Thursday.
If military conflict is now more likely, it is not imminent, other senior U.S. 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, these officials said on condition of anonymity.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has yet to sign the deployment order, but the officials said as many as 50,000 U.S. troops may be sent to the Persian Gulf region in early January to reinforce the 50,000 U.S. military personnel already there.
The United States will continue to analyze Saddam's self-inventory but has so far concluded that its omissions constitute a "material breach" of the U.N. resolution that compelled Iraq to disclose its deadly weapons, Powell said.
Although the term "material breach" is widely interpreted as a prelude to war, Powell said there is no "calendar deadline" to disarm Iraq by force.
Powell and John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, were 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 comes to a head Jan. 27 when the U.N. weapons inspectors report their findings and Bush decides whether to go to war.
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 allegedly hidden weapons "more targeted and effective."
Powell also insisted that the inspectors spirit Iraqi scientists and their families out of Iraq, where they might testify freely — and in safety — to Saddam's pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as allowed for under the U.N. resolution.
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.