UNITED NATIONS – Eager to keep up pressure on Iraq, the United States is trying to stop U.N. inspectors from producing a new report at the end of March that could lead to a suspension of sanctions.
Russia and France say the report is required under a U.N. Security Council resolution, and they are likely to go head-to-head with the United States when the U.N. Security Council discusses the matter Thursday.
The council was meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and scheduled to take up the Iraq issue later.
The United States wants to avoid any delays that would force its soldiers to fight in the heat of summer if they invade Iraq. It is spurring on inspectors who are looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix will report to the U.N. Security Council about Iraq's cooperation on Jan. 27.
After that, he said he plans to start work on a list of remaining tasks Iraq must complete in order to disarm and will submit a report to the council for consideration in late March.
That would almost certainly delay the Security Council from authorizing any military action against Iraq.
Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, are heading to Iraq to check on the inspectors' work Sunday and Monday.
In Moscow Thursday, ElBaradei said he intends to ask the Security Council for more time — "at least a few months" — to complete inspections in Iraq.
In Belgium, Blix warned Iraq it must cooperate more actively if it wants to avoid war. "Iraq must do more than they have done so far," Blix said after briefing European Union officials.
He has said Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration was long on words but lacking in new information, and Baghdad hadn't answered questions raised in 1998 by former inspectors and an international panel.
The dispute over the March report stems from the fact that U.N. inspectors are operating under two separate Security Council resolutions.
The first resolution, adopted in December 1999, created a new inspection agency headed by Blix and set out a timetable that could lead to a suspension of sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The second, adopted on Nov. 8, gave Iraq a final opportunity to eliminate its nuclear, chemical, biological and long-range missile weapons programs and threatened "serious consequences" if it doesn't.
The 1999 resolution requires inspectors to submit the list of Iraq's key remaining disarmament tasks. Blix has said Iraq's cooperation in fulfilling its demands could lead him to recommend in a year that sanctions be suspended.
U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice raised the U.S. opposition to the March report at a meeting with Blix on Tuesday. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte also brought it up at a Security Council luncheon on Tuesday with Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Blix.
"We can't move to define the remaining concerns until we're comfortable that the initial concerns have been answered," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. "There are many unanswered questions to which we are not getting active cooperation from Iraq."
Bulgaria's U.N. Ambassador Stefan Tafrov backed the U.S. position, saying a list should be prepared "as long as Iraq fully cooperates with the inspectors," but it is not actively cooperating now.
But France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said the December 1999 resolution is in force and should remain in force. A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government has "no problem" with Blix going ahead with his plans.
Neither did Syria. "These are resolutions adopted by the council and they should be respected, not flouted," said Syria's deputy ambassador Fayssal Mekdad.
Blix said Wednesday that he was abiding by both resolutions, and until the council changes its instructions "we will go by those which are on the table."
Several council diplomats said Wednesday the chance of the council adopting a new resolution supporting the U.S. position was very slim.
A council diplomat said Thursday that the United States was not looking for a debate or a decision by the council, but wanted to make its position clear.
Blix and ElBaradei told the Security Council last week that inspectors had found no "smoking guns." The inspectors resumed in November after a four-year break.
The Iraqis "have provided prompt access, been very cooperative in terms of logistics," Blix said Wednesday. "But they need to do a good deal more to provide evidence if we are to avoid any worse development."
Asked whether his Baghdad visit on Sunday and Monday was a last chance for the Iraqis, Blix said: "There's still time, I think, for Iraqis to get themselves out of a very dangerous situation."
Blix said Rice focused on the importance of the Jan. 27 report to the Security Council and Iraqi cooperation.
"She wants us to examine the declaration again," Blix said. "We have given some examples of things that we don't think it covered and I think she would like us to give an assessment of the cooperation both from the ground in terms of inspection, and in terms of how we see the report now that we have analyzed it even further."
Resolution 1441, which was adopted unanimously on Nov. 8, says false statements or omissions in Iraq's weapons declaration and a failure to cooperate in implementing the resolution would constitute a new "material breach" that would be reported to the council for discussion and possible action.
The United States is the only Security Council member to accuse Iraq of a new "material breach," saying its declaration had major omissions and it was not cooperating. Even its closest ally, Britain, has not used those diplomatically charged words which could lead to war.