As fresh signs emerged that the United States is making headway in winning support for military action against Iraq, chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix provided the Bush administration with new ammunition Wednesday, saying Baghdad has not provided evidence of "a fundamental decision" to disarm.
Blix welcomed Iraq's recent letters that contained new information about its weapons programs but said they did not represent "full cooperation or a breakthrough." Nonetheless, he noted that inspections resumed only in November after a four-year break and asked: "Is it the right time to close the door?"
The chief inspector's comments came hours before he delivered a 16-page written report on the progress of inspections and Iraq's cooperation to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who will then send it to the Security Council. Blix handed it in three days before the Saturday deadline.
Saturday is also the deadline Blix has set for Saddam Hussein to begin destroying Iraq's Al Samoud 2 missiles, their engines and components for exceeding a mandated 93-mile limit. Blix's report and Iraq's decision on the missiles are expected to be influential in whether the council supports a U.S.-backed resolution that would pave the way to war.
Mexico appeared to be the first among the undecided council members to shift toward the U.S. position, and an important Russian lawmaker, Mikhail Margelov, said Wednesday he doesn't believe his country would veto the resolution.
But the United States still faces an uphill struggle to win the nine "yes" votes and avoid a veto by France, China or Russia. It is now assured of British and Spanish support, and will likely get Bulgaria's and Mexico's votes.
Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's closest ally, faced a major revolt Wednesday by members of his own Labor Party who oppose war now, though he won support in Parliament for his handling of the crisis.
The council meets Thursday for its first closed-door discussion on the resolution and a rival French-Russian-German proposal to beef up inspections and continue them for at least four months.
In advance of the meeting, opponents and supporters of quick military action lobbied council members in New York and capitals around the world.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte and British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock held a meeting late Wednesday with the 10 non-permanent council members. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a firm opponent of war, met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said Moscow opposes any resolution that would trigger military action.
Mexico's shift came after President Bush placed a weekend phone call to Mexican President Vicente Fox, and after senior U.S. officials made numerous visits to the country.
Mexico had been one of the most outspoken supporters of continued weapons inspections, but Fox shifted his policy in an address on Tuesday. The new policy was then outlined in a foreign policy directive obtained by The Associated Press. Mexico's U.N. Mission refused to comment on the new directive.
Washington and London want a vote on the resolution in mid-March. That would be after Blix and nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei next brief the council, expected on March 7.
The report submitted Wednesday covers inspection activities over the past three months on topics ranging from staff training to aerial reconnaissance flights, said Ewen Buchanan, Blix's spokesman.
On Wednesday, Blix said an important test of Iraq's cooperation will be whether it complies with his order to start destroying the Al Samouds.
Iraq says the missiles don't exceed the limit and has asked for technical talks, but Blix has said the issue is not negotiable.
The Al Samoud "is a very important matter because there is a program that involves a lot of hardware, a lot of valuable hardware, so a positive response to that is an important thing, and I hope we will have it in time," he said.
He said letters from Iraq about two R-400 aerial bombs -- one of which may be filled with a biological agent -- and about the finding of handwritten documents on the 1991 disposal of chemical and biological weapons "are potentially interesting" and will have to be examined.
Asked whether there was any evidence that Iraq wants to disarm, he said, "I do not think I can say there is evidence of a fundamental decision, but there is some evidence of some increased activity."
In an attempt to reconcile the bitter differences between the two camps, Canada circulated a proposal Tuesday suggesting that Iraq be given until the end of March to complete a list of remaining disarmament tasks identified by inspectors.
But the United States rejected it, saying a decision on military force cannot be delayed. Supporters of continued inspections were also unhappy, with French diplomats objecting to the deadline and the German government saying it saw "no need for any kind of compromise."