WASHINGTON – The White House is trying to put out a diplomatic brush fire, as one nation after another on the U.N. Security Council lines up to insist the weapons inspections in Iraq be allowed to continue.
President Bush and his administration disagree, and want the inspectors' interim report, due Jan. 27, to be the final one, clearing the way for possible military action.
"This business about more time — how much time do we need to see clearly that he's not disarming?" Bush said Tuesday, speaking of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The inspectors themselves insist next week's report will only mark the halfway point, and that the final, comprehensive report on Iraq's weapons programs will not come until March.
"Surely our friends have learned lessons from the past," Bush added Tuesday. "Surely we have learned how this man deceives and delays."
The results of the carefully orchestrated American effort, salted with undiplomatic tough talk, probably won't be clear at least until the Security Council receives the report and convenes to decide what to do about it.
The interim inspectors' report is due Monday. The council is expected to meet Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Bush gives his State of the Union address. His speech could be used to influence the Security Council's response to the report, but White House aides say he is unlikely to announce then whether the U.S. will go to war.
Opposition on the Security Council to cutting off the inspections began Monday, when French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin hinted that France might use its veto to kill a resolution authorizing an assault on Iraq.
Two other important nations back France. Germany, which joined the council this month for a two-year terms, and will chair it for February, opposes force under any circumstances.
Gennady Gatilov, deputy U.N. ambassador for Russia, which also has a Security Council veto, bluntly told the Associated Press Tuesday: "I think the sense of the council is that the majority is against military action."
Chile and Syria, two other Security Council members, have expressed their support of keeping the weapons inspectors working until at least March.
Even Britain, America's staunchest major ally against Iraq, suggested recently that military action be put off until October or November of this year to allow the inspectors to accumulate enough evidence to justify invasion.
The United States insists that it has enough proof of Iraq's continuing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs to proceed now. It has not shared that evidence with the weapons inspectors.
Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on Tuesday accused Bush of pursuing war in Iraq while a more imminent threat exists in North Korea. He also blasted the White House for violating rights of immigrants in the name of homeland security and failing to prepare for future terrorist attacks.
"I continue to be convinced that this is the wrong war at the wrong time," Kennedy said.
Unspoken by any of the participants in this week's diplomatic dance is the fact that the window of opportunity for military action in Iraq is limited to the winter months.
Allowing a generous two months for the successful completion of an American invasion, the ideal time to begin an attack would be February. By the end of April, the Iraqi desert will start to heat up, rendering U.S. troops' bulky chemical-weapons protective gear too uncomfortable to wear.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered the Navy to double the number of aircraft carrier battle groups positioned within striking distance of Iraq, defense officials said.
The additional naval air power is part of a broader buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region. More than 60,000 troops already are there, to be joined over the next few weeks by about 120,000 more.
When the buildup is finished, before the end of February, the United States would be able to attack Iraq from several directions.
At the United Nations on Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke openly of war, saying only Iraq could prevent it by disarming.
Asked Tuesday whether the United States would attack without Security Council support, Powell said Iraq must be disarmed, "if not peacefully then by force. But one way or another Saddam Hussein must be disarmed."
On Tuesday, in a speech cleared by the White House, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said time was running out for any option except war.
"This regime has very little time left to undo the legacy of 12 years," Armitage said, referring to a series of U.N. resolutions since the 1991 Gulf War that demand Iraqi disarmament.
Though no proof has been made public, Armitage said the 16 chemical weapons discovered recently in Iraq were the tip of an iceberg that illustrates Saddam's duplicity.
"Finding these 16 warheads just raises a basic question: Where are the other 29,984? Because that's how many empty chemical warheads the U.N. Special Commission estimated he had, and he's never accounted for," Armitage said.
"Some people may say there is no smoking gun, but there's nothing but smoke," the State Department official said. "To put this fire out, Saddam is going to have to work."
White House officials said Armitage's argument previewed the case Bush will make against Saddam in his State of the Union address. They said Bush would not announce hostilities or impose a deadline Tuesday night, and they played down prospects of new evidence being revealed.
Besides Armitage's speech, the White House released a 29-page report titled "Apparatus of Lies" that purports to document Iraq's "brutal record of deceit." It accuses Saddam of enriching himself at the expense of his people, using the bodies of dead babies for staging funeral processions and exploiting Islam.
The report, posted on the White House Web site, said Iraq was not disclosing its weapons and was intimidating scientists who might help U.N. inspectors.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.