A U.S.-backed resolution for war in Iraq was in serious doubt as a majority of Security Council members openly acknowledged they wouldn't support the measure despite weeks of intense negotiations.
With hundreds of thousands of troops poised for action in the Persian Gulf, the White House was forced to consider withdrawing the resolution it filed three weeks ago or calling a vote it seemed certain to lose.
Either way, the United States would be heading into battle, and possibly a protracted occupation of Iraq, without the backing of the United Nations and its member states.
While some council ambassadors pledged to work through the weekend to find a way out of the impasse, others declared the diplomatic process dead.
Amid a swirl of 11th-hour posturing, the White House began planning for a possible summit this weekend between President Bush and his two staunchest council allies, British Prime Minister 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.
Meanwhile, the president and his advisers debated Thursday whether to press forward with a Security Council vote or withdraw the measure and turn toward final preparations 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."
Powell's comments marked a sharp change of policy since last week, when Bush said in a televised news conference that he could call a vote no matter what the count was.
Since the appearance, U.S. officials have claimed they were picking up the nine necessary council votes needed for the resolution. which threatens war unless Iraq disarms by Monday.
But at a tense council session late Thursday, it became evident that the United States didn't have more than six of the 15 council members on its side and that nothing had swayed France, and possibly Russia, from vetoing the resolution.
"This is not going to fly," Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov told The Associated Press.
China's ambassador, Wang Yingfan, suggested it was time for the resolution to be taken off the table.
"To me it's clear, they just don't have the votes," he said.
France, China, Russia, Germany and several other council members oppose the resolution because it would automatically authorize force if Saddam Hussein failed to disarm by Monday. Britain had sought to alleviate those fears by transferring the ultimatum to a side paper that wouldn't be voted on.
But France, which led a verbal assault against the resolution, saw the move as a ploy.
"We will say no to any resolution that authorizes the use of force," French Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said at the end of a tense council meeting.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Friday that he is still convinced that the crisis can still be resolved by peaceful means, insisting that U.N. weapons inspections can produce real disarmament.
"We must have the courage to fight for peace as long as there is a scrap of hope that a war can be avoided," he said in a speech to parliament.
The United States began the week with the expectation of a vote Tuesday but by Friday it was unclear when one would be held, if at all.
In Washington, U.S. officials said President Bush could drop the resolution in the face of a veto and fight Iraq without Security Council authorization.
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 decision will partly depend on whether the British prime minister wants to give diplomacy another weekend.
Blair, who is facing a massive revolt inside his own party because of his pro-U.S. stand on Iraq, desperately needs U.N. authorization in order to sell a war at home.
U.N. backing would lend international legitimacy to any military action and guarantee that the world body would share the costs of reconstruction.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte left the 4-hour council meeting Thursday saying that "time is running out." In light of Britain's efforts, he said Washington was prepared to "go the extra mile as far as seeing if we can reach some kind of basis for understanding within the council."
Ambassadors said informal consultations would continue Friday and possibly through the weekend, but they held out little hope for a breakthrough
In Iraq, Saddam's government exulted in the diplomatic turmoil.
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.
Six uncommitted nations -- Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan -- tried Thursday to bridge the deep divide.
Washington had been counting on the support of Mexico, Pakistan and at least two of the African nations. But it wasn't there Thursday.
In Santiago, Chile, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement after the council meeting ended in New York, saying: "Should a vote come tomorrow, we will not support it, we will reject it."