WASHINGTON – Forced into a diplomatic retreat, U.S. officials said Thursday that President Bush may delay a vote on his troubled U.N. resolution or even drop it -- and fight Iraq without the international body's backing. France dismissed a compromise plan as an "automatic recourse to war."
Amid a swirl of recrimination and 11th-hour posturing, the White House began planning for a possible overseas meeting this weekend between President Bush and his two staunchest allies on Iraq, British Prime Mininster Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
Senior U.S. officials said the meeting, tentatively planned for a neutral nation overseas, would allow the leaders to review final diplomatic and military strategies. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all three leaders and the host nation had not signed off on the summit Thursday night, and there would be no final word on the prospects for a meeting before Friday.
News of the meeting first surfaced Thursday morning, but officials said planning had stopped only to confirm hours later that talks had begun again. Early in the day, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan raised the possibility of a global summit "to get us out of this crisis."
The government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein exulted in the diplomatic tumult over a U.S.-British backed resolution that would demand that Iraq disarm by Monday. The allies "have lost the round before it starts while we, along with well-intentioned powers in the world, have won it," the popular daily Babil, owned by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's son, Odai, said in a front-page editorial.
Bush spent a fourth day on the telephone, consulting leaders of Britain, Bulgaria, South Korea, Poland, El Salvador and Norway.
The U.S. diplomatic drive was centered on Chile and Mexico, both members of the U.N. Security Council, a senior administration official said. Their support would ensure the United States of the minimum nine votes need for adoption of the resolution.
But France's threat to veto is taken seriously, and the administration may decide not to give France the chance by withdrawing the resolution, the official said on condition of anonymity. Bush was ready to drop the resolution, several aides said, if British Prime Minister Tony Blair didn't want it put to a vote.
The president has pushed for a U.N. vote thus far out of respect for Blair, whose support of Bush has drawn severe criticism in Britain.
Trouble loomed at every diplomatic turn.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, visiting Bush at the White House, said, "If there is not a resolution, Ireland cannot engage in support of military action, because we work under the U.N. resolution."
Bush sent a letter to incoming Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vice President Dick Cheney called the leader in hopes of securing permission to invade Iraq through Turkey. Hours later, Navy ships armed with Tomahawk missiles were told to move out of the Mediterranean into the Red Sea, a move that indicates weakening U.S. confidence that Turkey will grant overflight rights for U.S. planes and missiles.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government rejected a British compromise plan that would list six disarmament requirements Baghdad would have to meet or else face "serious consequences." Bush had signaled he would be willing to push back the March 17 deadline seven or 10 days if the gesture would help Blair.
Russia said it would consider the plan. China said it doubted the plan could lead to consensus.
The French dismissed the effort outright, sparking a trans-Atlantic shouting match.
"We cannot accept the British proposals insofar as they are part of a logic of war, a logic of automatic recourse to war," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said of France: "They rejected it before Iraq rejected it. If that isn't an unreasonable veto, what is?"
Bush, meanwhile, backpedaled on his pledge to have a U.N. vote by Friday. Fleischer told reporters a tally could slip beyond the weekend.
Several top administration officials said a growing number of advisers believe the resolution is doomed and they want the president to cut his losses and withdraw it. Others still hold out hope for the measure.
The officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed that a key is whether Blair wants Bush to give diplomacy more time.
Bush and his advisers debated Thursday whether to press forward with the vote or withdraw the measure and pivot quickly to war footing. Bush has long planned to address the nation shortly after the U.N. debate is resolved and give Saddam a final ultimatum, perhaps including a deadline, for war.
"We are still talking to members of the council to see what is possible," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "The options remain, go for a vote and see what members say or not go for a vote."
That's a change of policy since last week, when Bush said he wanted U.N. members to "show their cards" even if that meant the measure failed.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, didn't call for a vote Friday and diplomats doubted one would be called for Saturday.
In London, Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, emerged from a meeting with Blair to say the prime minister believed war was more likely because "the French have become completely intransigent."
Powell, testifying on Capitol Hill, said the "day of reckoning is fast approaching" for Iraq.