U.N. Prepares for Nasty Iraq Showdown

Although chief international weapons inspectors say Iraq is slowly showing the world it's willing to cooperate with disarmament demands, the United States and its allies are pushing the U.N. Security Council to use an iron fist in deciding whether to force Saddam Hussein from power.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix will issue another report on Iraq's compliance with disarmament demands to the U.N. Security Council on Saturday. He likely will not answer questions until another meeting on March 7.

Although Blix and nuclear arms chief Mohamed ElBaradei have maintained that Iraq has been slow in coughing up its weapons of mass production during the inspection process, Blix said Tuesday that Iraq has recently shown new signs of substantive cooperation.

"There are some elements which are positive which need to be explored further," Blix told reporters before meeting his advisory College of Commissioners to discuss his upcoming report.

Iraq has sent U.N. inspectors half a dozen letters in the past few days, Blix added.

"They have found an R-400 bomb containing liquid in a site which is known to us at which they did dispose of biological weapons before," he said.

Another letter said Iraq found some handwritten documents "concerning the act of disposal of prohibited items in 1991," the chief weapons inspector said. "Now all these have to be followed up, but these are new elements."

Blix also said he has received no reply from Iraq to his order to destroy its Al Samoud 2 missiles, their engines and components by Saturday. The U.N. contends that the missile's operational range exceeds the 93-mile limit set by post-Gulf War resolutions.

Asked whether the issue was open to debate, Blix replied, "Not between us and Iraq."

But in an interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather to be aired Wednesday, Saddam indicated he did not intend to destroy the missiles. CBS quoted the Iraqi leader as saying: "Iraq is allowed to prepare proper missiles and we are committed to that."

A major test will come Saturday when Iraq is expected to begin destroying all of Iraq's Al Samoud 2 missiles, which Blix said go beyond the range limit set by the Security Council after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The Security Council will soon consider a one-page resolution sponsored by the Untied States, Britain and Spain, which doesn't set any deadlines but says Saddam's time is running out to comply. Officials of those three countries want the council to decide by mid-March "that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in Resolution 1441," which was adopted unanimously on Nov. 8.

Although the resolution does not specifically ask for war, Security Council approval of it would essentially mean authorization for military action.

France, Russia and Germany circulated a competing plan Monday that would strengthen weapons inspections and extend them to at least July 1. French officials said their plan could be implemented under existing U.N. resolutions.

"The aim is to establish a timetable for Iraq's disarmament, program by program, relating to weapons of mass destruction," French President Jacques Chirac said in Berlin Monday before talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Russia also said Monday it will use its "entire arsenal of diplomatic means" to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The council will hold another closed meeting to discuss the two proposals on Thursday.

The U.S.-backed resolution must have nine "yes" votes and avoid a veto by France, Russia or China. Only Bulgaria is considered a strong bet to support it.

Washington and London, however, are telling Security Council members to get their heads out of the sand and to realize that they are cowering from the hard-line they drew against Saddam last fall.

"There comes a time when the hard decisions need to be made and [the Security Council] can't just say, 'Oh, please, don't ask us to make a hard decision this week or this month,'" Britain's U.N. ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, told BBC radio Tuesday. "This guy is retaining weapons of mass destruction, and procrastination is no longer an option."

Greenstock said the international community was entering a diplomatic end game and that war could only be avoided if Saddam were to "feel the heat" and comply with U.N. disarmament demands.

"I would just remind everybody that [Resolution] 1441 makes very clear that further material breach by Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with 1441 would bring serious consequences," National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice said in a press briefing Monday evening.

Rice contended that Iraqi lack of compliance with Resolution 1441 would make Security Council members find it "hard to vote against this."

"If you have to agree that Iraq is not fully cooperating and complying with the obligations that it undertook in 1441 ... if you accept that, then you have to accept that they're not in full compliance," Rice said. "You have to accept that they failed to take their final opportunity."

"It's hard for me to understand how you can vote for 1441, witness what has gone on from December -- or from November -- until now, and argue the converse of this, that he has taken advantage of his final opportunity to comply," she added.

Despite the stiff resistance in the Security Council, President Bush told U.S. governors Monday that the resolution "spells out what the world has witnessed the last months. The Iraq regime has not disarmed."

The American ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, said if Iraq is to avoid serious consequences, it must demonstrate "a major, drastic, dramatic change in the attitude" it has shown toward ridding itself of weapons of mass destruction.

"What we have seen is more of the same ... and most importantly, no real disarmament," Negroponte said, adding that time for diplomatic action is "dwindling."

Negroponte said Iraq has failed basic tests put forth to prove it has no banned weapons.

"We have not received a clear declaration," he said. "Iraq is immensely far from reaching that bar and everyone knows it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.