UNITED NATIONS – As opposition hardened against a war with Iraq, Britain offered Thursday to compromise on a U.S.-backed resolution by giving Saddam Hussein a short deadline to prove he has eliminated all banned weapons or face an attack.
With some 300,000 U.S. troops massing for battle, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made clear that any compromise must still include an authorization for military action. But Straw's demand, made a day before a crucial Security Council meeting, was unlikely to be acceptable to key council powers that favor more weapons inspections to disarm Iraq peacefully.
President Bush, in a rare prime-time news conference Thursday, said the United States will call for a Security Council vote even if it appears certain that the resolution will be defeated. But he added that he isn't afraid to go to war if the council rejects the resolution.
"We're days away from resolving this issue in the Security Council," Bush said. "No matter what the whip count is, we're calling for the vote. ... It's time for people to show their cards, let the world know where they stand when it comes to Saddam."
"As far as ultimatums ... we'll just wait and see," Bush also said.
The resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, Britain and Spain, says Iraq missed its "final opportunity" to disarm peacefully and paves the way for war.
The United States faces an uphill struggle to get nine "yes" votes and avoid a veto by one of the permanent members opposed to the rush to war. On Thursday, China threw its support behind France, Germany and Russia, which have vowed to prevent the resolution's passage.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to council members to discuss the crisis calmly, noting there were several proposals on the table.
"The positions are very hard now," he said. "I am encouraging people to strive for a compromise to seek common ground," adding, "to make concessions, you get concessions."
Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in New York on Thursday to try to win support for the resolution from undecided council members.
He said the threat posed by Saddam must be dealt with now, not after thousands of people die when his "horrible weapons" of mass destruction are used.
Powell and other foreign ministers will attend a Security Council meeting on Friday where chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and his counterpart, Mohamed ElBaradei, will brief members on Iraq's cooperation in eliminating its banned weapons. For many council members, Friday's reports will be key in deciding whether to vote for the U.S.-backed resolution.
ElBaradei, the chief nuclear inspector, suggested Thursday he would tell the council that abandoning the weapons inspections makes little sense so long as the Iraqis are actively cooperating.
"That's clearly the gist of my presentation: In my area, inspection is working. We are making progress. There's no reason to scuttle the process," ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press on a flight from Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered.
In a hint of own report, Blix said Wednesday that Iraq is now cooperating "a great deal more" in providing evidence about its weapons programs and engaging in "real disarmament." He said he would welcome more time for inspections, but wouldn't ask for it.
Foreign ministers from 11 of the 15 council nations headed to New York for the inspectors' briefings, and early arrivals met one-on-one late Thursday on the looming decision over war or peace. Diplomats from all 191 U.N. member nations are caught up in the crisis, and the buzz in corridors, lounges and lunch lines is almost exclusively on Iraq.
Straw, the British foreign minister, told a news conference after meeting Annan that London was prepared to negotiate language in the resolution. He also said he was open to possible amendments that address concerns raised by the divided council.
He did not spell out the details during a news conference. But British diplomats floated the idea of attaching a short deadline with the resolution, either as an amendment or a statement that would accompany it. The deadline would give Saddam a brief period to prove he has no more banned weapons, or face war.
"We are open to discussion on the wording, but the principle we are holding firm to," he said, emphasizing that Iraq has squandered its final opportunity to disarm peacefully.
U.S. diplomats in recent days have signaled a willingness to hear suggestions on the wording so long as there were no changes to the substance of the draft. U.S. officials said Washington had "not completely signed off" on the British ideas.
British diplomats said discussions were going on among capitals and at the United Nations, but it was too early to talk about the amount of time Saddam would be given. Several council diplomats expressed surprise that British hadn't approached them to discuss their ideas.
Russia's deputy U.N. Ambassador Gennady Gatilov said his government hasn't been approached yet about the British suggestion, but he said talk of a short deadline on the existing resolution "sounds cosmetic."
"Just to add something to the existing draft in terms of putting deadlines, short deadlines, one week -- of course, it will not fly because it doesn't change ... the substance of the draft," Gatilov said.
Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Munir Akram, whose country is considered a swing vote, said he also hadn't heard directly from the British. But he said his understanding was that they were suggesting "a delayed fuse."
Asked whether that was acceptable, Akram replied: "If you don't want to set off the firecracker in the first place, whether the fuse is lit or not is immaterial."
There were hints of alternative compromise ideas.
Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who will represent the European Union at the Security Council meeting, will present "a new possibility" with benchmarks that Iraq must implement "in a specific time frame," said Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Panos Belglitis.
This appeared very similar to a Canadian compromise proposal that would give Saddam until the end of the month to carry out a series of remaining disarmament tasks.
Foreign ministers on a newly appointed Arab League committee met Annan to discuss the Iraq crisis. Amr Mousa, the head of the Arab League, said afterward that his team offered no proposals for the United Nations but believes war is still avoidable and would travel to Baghdad next.