Key members of the U.N. Security Council said Wednesday that the United States has so far failed to convince them that time has run out for a peaceful resolution to the crisis with Iraq.
At a crucial council meeting a day after President Bush's State of the Union speech, 11 of the 15 members supported giving more time to weapons inspectors to pursue Iraq's peaceful disarmament, council diplomats told The Associated Press.
Calling for continued inspections were France, Russia and China, which all have veto power, as well as Germany, Mexico, Chile, Guinea, Cameroon, Syria, Angola and Pakistan. Only Bulgaria and Spain backed the United States and Britain in focusing on Iraq's failures rather than the inspections process.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said diplomacy was in its "final phase." Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States would try to help find a haven for Saddam Hussein, his family and close aides if he would agree to go into exile.
"That would be one way to try to avoid war," Powell, who will address the Security Council next Wednesday, said at a news conference.
State Department officials, however, said an exile scenario was not under serious consideration.
Saddam, in remarks televised Wednesday in Iraq, was defiant. He said his country "has huge capabilities" and is ready to face a U.S. attack, "destroy it and defeat it."
"When faced with an attack, we always put in our calculation the worst case scenario and we build our tactics on that," the Iraqi leader told military commanders. "We will have long successive defense lines with continued support of equipment."
At the daylong Security Council meeting, held behind closed doors, Britain remained squarely in Washington's camp.
"There are members of the council who are asking for time, but it isn't a matter of time. It's a matter of whether Iraq realizes that the game is up, or whether it is trying to keep the inspectors at bay," British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said during a break in the meeting.
U.S. diplomats had hoped the meeting would signal increased international support for military action in Iraq. But neither the largely negative reports from weapons inspectors on Monday nor Bush's address on Tuesday altered the positions of some of America's key allies, including France.
"The majority of the council thinks we should continue inspections," said French Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere. "This is what they think today, and I think it is important to say so."
Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov said Russia wanted "undeniable proof" that Iraq was rearming, and he dismissed reports that Moscow was shifting to a more pro-American stance.
Still, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte warned that the "the time for decision-making is fast approaching."
He said the United States would conduct intense negotiations, both at the United Nations and between capitals, ahead of the special Feb. 5 council meeting where Powell is expected to present evidence of Iraq's secret weapons programs and links to terrorist groups.
The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud, was rushing to Washington to meet with Bush and Powell on Thursday. Bush also planned to meet Thursday with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and on Friday at Camp David with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
Security Council diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said the possibility of a second resolution paving the way toward war was being widely discussed. The most likely scenario would set a relatively short deadline for Baghdad to meet certain steps to avert military action, the diplomats said.
Bush said Tuesday that he would use the "full force and might of the U.S. military" if needed to disarm Iraq.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the top nuclear inspector in Iraq, disputed other comments Bush made on the inspections, including claims that Iraqi intelligence agents are posing as scientists.
In a wide-ranging interview with AP, ElBaradei stood by his inspectors' findings that aluminum tubes the Iraqis had tried to import were for rockets and not for a nuclear program, as the president reasserted in his speech Tuesday night.
"We believe the tubes were destined for the conventional rocket program," ElBaradei said. He said the tubes could be modified for uranium enrichment but that the process would be expensive, time-consuming and detectable.
In his annual speech, Bush said: "Iraqi intelligence officers are posing as the scientists inspectors are supposed to interview. Real scientists have been coached by Iraqi officials on what to say, and intelligence sources indicate that Saddam Hussein has ordered that scientists who cooperate with U.N. inspectors in disarming Iraq will be killed, along with their families."
ElBaradei said it was unlikely his inspectors "could be fooled."
"We know all the scientists from the past and I think our people could easily detect if that person is a scientist or not."
ElBaradei and the other chief U.N. inspector, Hans Blix, spent Wednesday answering questions from Security Council members regarding their reports on the first 60 days of inspections.
Their differing -- but ultimately negative -- reports issued Monday were used by Bush to strengthen arguments for possible war, and could persuade reluctant allies to support military action to disarm Saddam.
In a letter to be published Thursday in newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and the Times of London, the leaders of Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Denmark pay homage to the "bravery and generosity of America" in ensuring peace in Europe.
And in a veiled attack on current dissidents France and Germany, the leaders call for "unwavering determination and firm international cohesion on the part of all countries for whom freedom is precious."
The letter highlighted divisions among European allies -- among them key council members unconvinced by the reports and Bush's address.
German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger said inspectors should be given "a realistic opportunity to discharge their mandate. Let us not put aside an instrument we only recently sharpened."
Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri dismissed Bush's allegations as "lies" and said his government will fully cooperate with inspectors to show "that these baseless allegations are nothing but fabrications."
In a seven-page letter to the United Nations, Iraq disputed much of the inspectors' claims that Baghdad had placed obstacles in their way and was hiding pertinent information.
Lavrov of Russia said the letter was one of several signs of Iraqi cooperation with inspectors.