DOHA, Qatar – With U.N. inspectors having found no evidence of banned weapons, U.S. allies are urging Washington to give the experts time to find proof that Saddam Hussein is hiding banned weapons before deciding to go to war.
Much of the pressure is coming from Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair faces growing opposition within his own Labor Party to rushing into armed conflict without hard evidence against the Iraqis.
Blair told his Cabinet on Thursday that the Jan. 27 report that U.N. inspectors will submit to the U.N. Security Council is not a deadline and the teams should be given "space and time" to complete their mission.
"That statement would make it virtually impossible, I believe, for this country to go to war if America so decided come hell or high water," British Parliament member Glenda Jackson said.
The Jan. 27 report had been seen as critical in determining whether President Bush will order U.S. troops to attack Iraq to rid the country of alleged weapons of mass destruction, which the United States insists Saddam is hiding in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
The United States already has ordered thousands of troops, attack aircraft and ships to the Persian Gulf. On Friday, U.S. officials announced that nearly 35,000 American troops, including two large Marine units, are getting orders to ship out for the Gulf in the largest single deployment order since the Pentagon began its buildup last month.
However, prospects of imminent conflict appeared to recede when chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. nuclear control agency, told the Security Council on Thursday that they had found "no smoking gun" in nearly two months of inspections.
Blix and ElBaradei said their teams need more time and more intelligence from U.N. members to help in a search that already has taken inspectors to more than 300 sites.
Following Blix's comments, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, Javier Solana, said it would be "very difficult to declare war" against Iraq without proof that Saddam still holds banned weapons.
Those sentiments were echoed by governments in Germany and France, where opinion surveys show overwhelming opposition to an attack against Iraq.
"We remain determined to be opposed to the war," French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told reporters Friday. "In a crazy world, we need a France that is wise."
The United States has reserved the right to act unilaterally to disarm Iraq, which denies it holds proscribed weapons. However, the decision by Bush last year to take America's allegations against Iraq to the United Nations committed Washington to work within the U.N. system.
In the view of many world leaders, that means allowing the inspection process to run its course, even if that takes months.
U.S. commanders, however, have long maintained they would prefer to fight a war in winter rather than in the broiling heat of the Iraqi summer, when temperatures can rise to nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit and sandstorms sweep much of the country.
Australia's prime minister, John Howard, said his country would send elite troops, planes and ships to help disarm the Iraqis, but only after U.N. inspectors finish their work.
"The weapons inspectors should be given a proper opportunity to work and a proper opportunity to succeed," Howard said. "For this to happen, you not only need the support and confidence of the international community but you also need the full, willing cooperation of Iraq."
Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, whose country holds the European Union presidency, said the Europeans plan to send a new diplomatic mission to the Middle East soon to try to defuse the Iraq crisis.
Simitis said the Europeans believe "we simply have to stick with the (U.N.) process," meaning that no decision on a war should be taken until the inspectors finish their work or discover evidence of Iraqi violations.