UNITED NATIONS – Secretary of State Colin Powell is pressing reluctant allies to take a stand on how long they want U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq to continue or to acknowledge they simply will not support force to unseat President Saddam Hussein.
With the U.N. Security Council receiving another report Friday in which inspectors said Iraq was providing some cooperation in the search for illicit weapons, Powell was concentrating his diplomacy on the foreign ministers of France, Russia and Germany -- three countries which have been resisting the push to forcibly disarm Saddam.
Through the day, he had plans to meet with all 14 foreign ministers of the Security Council nations, but France and Russia, with their power to veto a new U.N. resolution to authorize force, held the key to the Bush administration's effort to rid Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction.
No immediate move to ask the council to approve a fresh resolution authorizing force was anticipated. France, however, was believed to be weighing introducing a resolution to extend the inspections, and that might compel the United States and Britain to counter with one of their own providing for the use of force to disarm Iraq, a U.S. official said..
Powell met first with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and then saw Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov before the council went into session. They made no statements.
In Baghdad, in an apparent attempt to avert an attack, Saddam signed a decree banning the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The White House scoffed at that.
"If one would want to make believe and pretend that Iraq is a democracy that could pass meaningful laws, it would be 12 years late and 26,00 liters of anthrax short," said press secretary Ari Fleischer. "It would be 12 years late and 38,000 liters of botulism short. And it would be 12 years late and 30,000 unfilled chemical warheads short."
Later in the morning, President Bush tried to shore up support from Turkey, which is looking for financial aid in exchange for allowing U.S. troops to use its facilities.
After the meeting, foreign minister Yasar Yakis tried to minimize the importance of tense financial negotiations between the two countries. "We don't regard the financial dimensions of it as a prime issue," he said, adding that what is important is the broad levels of cooperation between the United States and Turkey.
He said Bush did not discuss the dispute in NATO over whether the alliance should start planning to defend Turkey should Iraq attack, saying "it's taken for granted" that NATO would help Turkey, which is a member of the alliance.
Also, U.S. fighter planes bombed a mobile surface-to-air missile system near Basra, in southern Iraq on Friday -- the third strike in that area this week by planes enforcing a "no fly" zone. A U.S. military statement said the missile system posed a threat to U.S. planes.
In a report to the council crediting Iraq with expanding its cooperation, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said he appreciated the report Powell provided to the council last week on evidence of Iraqi deception.
But Blix said the activity at a chemical installation that Powell described as deceptive "could have been routine activity,"
Powell, sitting at the U.S. table, quietly took notes on Blix's presentation.
President Bush said Thursday the United Nations must help him confront Saddam or "fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant, debating society."
As Bush issued his call for unity, the administration said Americans should be prepared for "a fairly long-term commitment" in Iraq if the United States goes to war.
The United States says Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in violation of several U.N. resolutions, an assertion denied by Baghdad. Bush has said war is his last resort to disarm Saddam while making it clear that time is running out on any other options. There are 130,000 U.S. land, sea and air forces massed in the Persian Gulf region awaiting Bush's decision.
Powell told the House Budget Committee he had no estimate of the cost of war with Iraq. But he did say he thought Iraq should be able to adjust quickly afterward -- in contrast to the slow pace of recovery in Afghanistan.
"I would hope that it would be a short conflict and that it would be directed at the leadership, not the society," he said. Iraq has an effective bureaucracy, rich oil resources and a developed middle class, the secretary of state said.
The council meeting with Blix and and nuclear weaposn inspector Mohamed ElBaradei and the meetings on the side among foreign ministers may mark the end of the Bush administration's attempt to gain U.N. authorization for force as an option to disarm Iraq.
"We are reaching a moment of truth," Powell told Congress this week.
Telegraphing his approach, Powell told Congress this week that he intended to ask France and Germany whether they were opposing war with Iraq in order to get Saddam "off the hook."