U.S. Offers U.N. Council a Compromise on Iraq

W By Robin Wright, Tyler Marshall and Edwin Chen

wASHINGTON – Bowing to pressure from France and Russia, the United States on Wednesday offered a compromise proposal at the United Nations that would call for serious “consequences” if Iraq does not comply with tough weapons inspections – but would not seek authorization for military action without further discussions at the world body.

The compromise, outlined Wednesday by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in telephone conversations to his French and Russian counterparts, calls for one Security Council resolution that will send U.N. weapons inspectors back to Iraq with sweeping orders to track any nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles.

But in a bid to end a monthlong diplomatic deadlock and satisfy demands of its Security Council partners, the United States also would agree not to automatically launch a military operation against Iraq if Saddam Hussein fails to disarm. Instead, the Bush administration would have to go back to the council for additional debate – and a possible second resolution authorizing U.N. members to act, the sources said.

If the Security Council cannot agree on a course of action, then the United States has the prerogative to form its own coalition to forcibly disarm Iraq, they added.

The U.S. move is a crucial step that would appear to meet the insistence on the part of several Security Council members – but articulated most vocally by France – that the Bush administration not be allowed to launch military strikes against Hussein without first returning to the Security Council to debate the consequences if the inspectors determine their work is being obstructed.

Elements of the diplomatic breakthrough came on a day that was heavy with public rhetoric on the Iraq crisis.

In Washington, President Bush signed a congressional measure authorizing him to wage war against Iraq, and he called for immediate, decisive action against Saddam to “fully and finally remove a real threat to world peace and America.” At the United Nations, ambassadors from scores of nations urged the Security Council in a debate to take a more measured approach to restart the process of disarming Saddam.

Speaking from the ornate East Room of the White House and surrounded by powerful members of Congress, Bush used direct, powerful language to make the case for confronting Saddam without delay.

“Those who choose to live in denial may eventually be forced to live in fear,” he said.

As he spoke, details were being worked out behind the scenes for the diplomatic compromise expected to pave the way toward passage of a resolution by the Security Council.

“We have floated language with the French and Russians that says if the weapons inspectors report violations, then the Security Council can meet and consider what action it can and should take,” a senior State Department official said Wednesday. “That language is coupled with a strong resolution that gives clear instructions to the weapons inspectors and warns that Iraq faces real consequences if it fails to cooperate.

“This represents an attempt to find a way to achieve our goals but also accommodate others,” said the senior State Department official. “And in the end it does not take away from the president’s prerogative to act as he sees fit.”

The administration now expects the compromise to be accepted by France and Russia, a move that is then expected to bring along China, which has been less vocal on the disputed issues. The administration expects to hear back from the French and Russians as early as Thursday, U.S. officials said.

Ginette de Matha, spokeswoman at the French mission in New York, declined to comment on the U.S. offer, stating only, “we are continuing to negotiate.”

However, one well-placed U.S. official was optimistic enough about the impending deal on a resolution that he predicted: “The paint has finally dried.”

While traveling in Alexandria, Egypt, French President Jacques Chirac reiterated his opposition to an earlier U.S. proposal for a single Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, but added that France was open to a measure improving “the work conditions of the disarmament inspectors of the U.N., as requested by the chief of the inspectors, Hans Blix, in whom France has confidence.”

In an interview for state television Wednesday night, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov echoed the French leader. “If attempts are made to submit a resolution whose aim is to create the legal grounds for use of force scenarios, it will not be in the interests of settling the situation,” he said.

Wednesday’s compromise proposal, which would allow both U.S. and France to declare a diplomatic victory, is designed to generate movement now that Bush has a domestic resolution authorizing a showdown with Iraq.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer later clarified Bush’s call to “remove a real threat,” saying it referred not just to ridding Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction but also of Hussein himself.

“He’s talking about both,” Fleischer said.

During the East Room ceremony, Bush warned of the dangers of ignoring the threat posed by Iraq.

“Those who choose to live in denial may eventually be forced to live in fear,” he said.

Bush acknowledged – to a greater extent than he has previously – the mortal dangers American soldiers would face in a war in Iraq.

“If we go into battle, as a last resort, we will confront an enemy capable of irrational miscalculations, capable of terrible deeds,” the president warned. “As the commander in chief, I know the risks to our country. I’m fully responsible to the young men and women in uniform who may face these risks. Yet those risks only increase with time. And the costs could be immeasurably higher in years to come.

“I hope the use of force will not be necessary,” Bush said, but he did not seem optimistic about such a prospect. “Our goal is to fully and finally remove a real threat to world peace and to America. Confronting grave dangers is the surest path to peace and security.”

As he spoke, the president was joined on stage by an array of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

After signing the congressional resolution, which passed the House and Senate by large margins last week, Bush looked up, jutted out his chin and nodded emphatically.

The congressional resolution, he said, “symbolizes the united purpose of our nation,” and added: “We will face our dangers squarely, and we will face them unafraid.”

His words were seen as a direct challenge to the United Nations to seize its chance to end years of Saddam’s defiance of the world body and pass a strong resolution that would send U.N. weapons inspectors back with new, tough ground rules to disarm Hussein. Hawks on the Iraq issue within the administration have urged the United States to lead a military operation against the regime at the first sign of Iraqi obstruction with the work of U.N. inspectors.

After meeting later in the day with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush stressed the need for agreement at the United Nations.

“There are differing opinions on members of the Security Council, and we’ve got to work hard to reach a consensus, a resolution that will, on the one hand, do everything it can to disarm Saddam Hussein and also has got the capacity for there to be consequences should he not disarm.”

In offering the diplomatic compromise, the Bush administration is seeking to avoid an open-ended negotiating process that could slow the disarmament effort, which has been on hold since U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998. In additional moves to ensure swift action by the world body now, the Americans are also considering further compromises or, more likely, dropping three other contentious provisions in their original proposal for a U.N. resolution, U.S. officials say.

Washington had originally called for armed escorts for the weapons inspectors to ensure that access is not blocked, for the right to take Iraqi scientists or military officers out of the country for interviews about Baghdad’s arms programs and for representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council to accompany the inspectors.

All three conditions have long been considered part of the so-called “negotiating fat” likely to be either toned down or cut, according to U.N. sources. Just how far Washington is willing to go may depend on the French and Russian reaction, U.S. officials indicated.

“We haven’t yet decided how far we are willing to go,” the senior State Department official said. “The United States has prerogatives right now. All we want is to make sure that whatever action the Security Council decides on is good and we’ll participate in that discussion. It’s a pretty active discussion right now. Nothing has been promised but we believe it will be soon.

“There’ll be one resolution, and if the Security Council wants a second one, fine,” the official added.