U.N. Moves Toward Final Decision on Iraq

The foreign ministers of several key nations are heading to New York for Friday's crucial presentation by U.N. weapons inspectors -- and the showdown that is expected to follow on a U.S.-British resolution to declare that time has run out for Saddam Hussein.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have both made it very clear that they believe Iraq is in violation of the U.N.'s disarmament resolution -- and that they are ready to go it alone, if necessary, to remove Saddam from power.

But the allies continue to hope to gain the backing of seven other Security Council nations -- and to avoid a veto from France, Russia or China.

The debate on the proposed U.S.-British resolution will follow the latest report by chief weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei on Iraq's progress in eliminating its weapons of mass destruction.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, hardening Moscow's opposition to quick military action, indicated Tuesday that Russia may use its veto against the U.S.-backed resolution.

Speaking at a news conference in London, Ivanov said "it is unlikely" that Russia or any permanent Security Council member with veto power would abstain.

"There are certain issues where it is desirable there should be no abstentions among the Security Council members, because these are serious issues," Ivanov said.

Earlier, Ivanov was quoted as saying in a BBC interview that "abstaining is not a position Russia can take." But the Russian news agency Interfax gave a different translation, saying abstention was "unlikely."

The United States still doesn't have the nine "yes" votes needed to win approval of the resolution, according to supporters and opponents, and many undecided council members are looking for a compromise.

Even if the resolution does get nine votes, it needs to avoid a veto by Russia, France or China, who all favor continuing inspections at least into July.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte was asked Tuesday whether the United States would withdraw the resolution if it didn't have the votes to pass it.

"We haven't crossed that bridge," he said. "We believe that support should be there. We are not facing that kind of situation but we will cross the bridge when we come to it."

With the United States moving toward a vote next week to approve military action against Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared Tuesday that war must be a last resort and called Baghdad's missile destruction "a positive development."

"The inspectors have to report the facts, and as I've indicated, this is a positive development," he said of Baghdad's start on the destruction its Al Samoud 2 missiles. Since Saturday, 19 of about 100 missiles have been destroyed.

Annan said war is "a human catastrophe" that should only be considered when all possibilities for "peaceful settlement have been exhausted."

French Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere told a closed council meeting Tuesday that Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin will attend Friday's meeting, a French diplomat said. France has been in the forefront of the opposition to war against Iraq and de Villepin's attendance is likely to bring foreign ministers from other council nations to New York.

It was unclear on Tuesday whether Secretary of State Colin Powell would attend the meeting.

A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said "all indications are that the vote would be next week." As one of the sponsors of the resolution, along with Britain and Spain, the United States can call for a vote at any time.

Most council diplomats predicted a vote on March 13, six months after Bush went to the United Nations seeking international support for the disarmament of Iraq.

The president's call to action on Sept. 12 was quickly followed by an Iraqi decision to allow weapons inspectors to return after nearly four years. It also spurred the council to adopt unanimously a U.S.-drafted resolution in November that called on Iraq to disarm and cooperate with inspectors.

The United States, Britain and Spain believe Iraq failed the tests laid out in that resolution. Their new proposed resolution would give them Security Council authorization to disarm Iraq through force.

A fourth Security Council nation, Bulgaria, also has said it will support the proposed resolution.

But the majority of the council is wary of the U.S.-driven position and two separate groups are searching for alternatives to war.

France, backed by Russia, Germany and China, has suggested beefing up the inspections regime and extending its work at least through July 1.

"War can and should be avoided," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said, echoing the wording of the joint statement issued during Ivanov's visit to Beijing.

However, Kong added, "Iraq should implement the U.N. resolutions strictly, fully and conscientiously. It should not possess weapons of mass destruction."

Iran, which fought an eight-year war with Iraq during the 1980s, called Tuesday for U.N.-supervised elections in neighboring Iraq and urged the divided Iraqi opposition to reconcile with Saddam as part of a plan aimed at averting a U.S.-led war.

"We believe this is the only way for a peaceful change of government in Iraq, which will prevent the breakout of a war in the region," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said, according to Iran's official news agency.

Annan said free elections were not part of the issue at hand. "Elections [are] something that is in the future of any reform process. But I'm not sure that we are there yet," he said.

Chile and other Security Council members spent several hours late Monday listening to a Canadian compromise proposal that would set a series of benchmarks Iraq would have to meet by the end of the month, when the council would then decide whether Iraq had complied.

Cristian Maquieira, the deputy Chilean ambassador, said Canada's proposal was "a positive step but we are far still from getting a document." The Canadian ideas were rejected last week by Washington as well as by France, Russia and Germany.

U.S. officials have said they would be open to suggestions on their resolution but would not negotiate the substance of it. If the council rejects the U.S.-backed draft, Bush has said he is prepared to fight with a coalition of willing nations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.