U.S. proposal may break impasse at U.N. over iraq

W By Karen DeYoung and Colum Lynch

wASHINGTON – The United States has agreed to drop its insistence that a United Nations resolution on Iraq include an automatic trigger for military action, paving the way for an end to a protracted dispute with France that threatened to prevent the start of new weapons inspections, U.S. and diplomatic officials said Thursday.

A French official said the new resolution wording is “encouraging,” although Paris will not give an official answer until after it has examined the complete text and President Jacques Chirac returns this weekend from a Middle East trip.

U.S., British and French officials cautioned that a U.S.-French agreement on the trigger language would not mean immediate Security Council approval of the resolution, particularly among its five permanent members, which have veto power. Although officials in Washington and London who worked on the draft said they are also prepared to drop some of the most controversial inspection demands, including provisions for armed support for inspectors and allowing permanent members the right to direct inspections, that language has not yet been offered.

It is widely believed that Russia, which also objected to the initial draft, will make additional demands. “We’ve still got a lot of negotiating to do,” said one senior administration official, and a final text may not be put on the table until next week.

But the new U.S. proposal appears to have broken the most serious logjam between Washington and Paris on the trigger issue. “A huge amount of progress has been made,” said a second administration official.

The new wording calls for chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to “report immediately” to the Security Council on any Iraqi failure to cooperate, and for the Council “to convene immediately … to consider the situation.”

France rejected an initial U.S. draft authorizing U.N. members to respond immediately to any Iraqi violations with “all necessary means,” including military force, and said any response should be the subject of further council consideration and a second resolution. The Bush administration insisted on a single resolution, including both the inspections demand and the consequences for defying it.

Secretary of State Colin Powell declined to discuss the wording but said the United States would maintain complete freedom of action. “Our position is clear,” he told reporters in New York Thursday night after meeting with Blix. “We believe one resolution is appropriate, and obviously the council can go off and have other discussions whenever it chooses.

“Any resolution that emerges from this will be a resolution that preserves the authority and right of the president of the United States to act in self-defense of the American people and of our neighbors,” he said.

Powell said that last week’s congressional resolution giving the president unlimited authority to use military force in Iraq leaves all of his options open. “If it becomes necessary to apply force, the joint resolution says the president should work with the U.N. to see if everyone is willing to do that,” he said. “At the same time, the resolution says the president has the authority to act … whether the United Nations has acted or not.”

U.S. and British officials who have worked on the draft said that the new U.N. proposal, by referring to a second round of council “consideration,” was designed to let both sides declare victory. News that the new language had been proffered was first reported Thursday by the Los Angeles Times.

“What it does is to satisfy the French requirement that … it not confer an automatic right on the United States to go to war,” said one senior diplomat. At the same time, he said, “the United States has words that, in its view, although requiring some consultation, does not commit it to a second resolution in order to go to war.” Although the new text still maintains that Iraq is in “material breach” of U.N. resolutions, a phrase that Washington has previously used to justify force, France is satisfied that the United States will not use it to trigger new military action.

The French, he said, “have been enjoined powerfully from their friends to take yes for an answer.”

Negotiations over the resolution in the past several weeks have been conducted largely behind the scenes at the most senior levels of government. Bush has spoken with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chirac. But most of the heavy lifting has been among Powell, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who have spoken to each other daily, and sometimes several times a day.