Britain and America are drawing up plans to give Saddam Hussein as little as 48 hours to flee Baghdad or face war, if UN weapons inspectors report this week that the Iraqi dictator is still refusing to disarm fully.
The proposals will form the framework of a long-awaited second resolution, which could be put before the Security Council by next weekend.
The deadline would be just long enough for Arab neighbors to make a last effort to persuade Saddam to leave the country, according to US officials, or for a coup to take place. The shortest timeframe to emerge from private diplomatic discussions has been two days.
The phrasing of the new, deliberately concise UN resolution would deny Saddam a fresh chance to say that he will comply with Security Council demands. Britain will put forward the resolution because Washington "does not want to be seen to need it", according to a senior Security Council diplomat.
Foreign Office officials confirmed that Saudi Arabia has offered to take Saddam if he goes into exile. Last month Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, said he would be "delighted" if Saddam fled Iraq.
"To avoid a war, I would personally recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership and their families could be provided haven in some other country," he said.
To be passed, the new resolution would require the support of nine of the 15 Security Council members, assuming there was no veto from France, China or Russia. British and American officials last night made clear that they do not expect a unanimous vote in its favor but are confident that a veto can be avoided.
"The resolution being discussed would declare that Saddam is in material breach of UN resolutions, which authorizes the use of all necessary means to disarm him," one senior Security Council diplomat said.
America and Britain are, however, determined to avoid a second resolution which would enable Saddam further to delay disarmament. "The last thing they want is a decision which just starts the process towards another decision," said the diplomat.
France, Germany, Russia and China favor giving inspectors more time, raising the possibility of a showdown on Friday, when the Security Council meets to hear the latest report from Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector.
Germany and France confirmed yesterday that they are working on plans for a solution that involves sending UN peacekeeping troops to support inspectors in Iraq.
Dr Blix is holding talks with senior Iraqi officials in Baghdad this weekend. While his inspectors have now been granted private access to a number of Iraqi scientists, one of their prime targets - the English-trained woman who used to run Saddam's lethal biological weapons program - said that she will refuse to talk to them.
In an exclusive interview to be broadcast on BBC1's Panorama at 10.30 tonight, Rihab Taha, who studied at the University of East Anglia and is known as "Dr Germ", said that she does not trust the inspectors.
"It is a human right that if you don't want to speak to anyone, no one will oblige you or force you." Speaking of her work on biological weapons, Dr Taha added: "It is our right to have a capability to defend ourselves and to have something as a deterrent."
Despite the Franco-German initiatives, Britain insists that Iraq has had enough last chances. "It's a question of timing as to when you reach that point of last resort," said Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN.
"We've reached it. It's 600 weeks since we started the business of asking Iraq to disarm. And now it's time to cut the knot and take action."
Getting a second UN resolution is crucial for Tony Blair. The Prime Minister will urge his party to back him at Labour's spring conference in Glasgow next Sunday, the day after mass anti-war rallies there and in London.
He is, however, facing, a serious rebellion. One official said: "We are getting in a huge amount of motions opposing the war." One constituency Labour Party has voted to stop campaigning for the local elections in May unless the Prime Minister secures a second resolution.
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