Forced into a diplomatic retreat, U.S. officials said Thursday that President Bush may withdraw his troubled U.N. resolution and fight Iraq without the international body's backing. France dismissed a compromise plan as an "automatic recourse to war."
Amid a swirl of recrimination and 11th-hour posturing, the administration reversed course and said a Security Council vote could be delayed until next week or not be held at all. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan raised the possibility of a summit of world leaders "to get us out of this crisis.
Iraq braced for war, lining the streets of Baghdad with fighting positions and foxholes, while the Pentagon moved B-2 Stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to bases close to Iraq.
Saddam Hussein's government exulted in the diplomatic tumult over a U.S.-British backed resolution that would demand that Iraq disarm by Monday. "I don't think the United States will succeed," said Iraq Foreign Minister Naji Sabri.
Bush spent a fourth straight day on the telephone, consulting leaders of Britain, Bulgaria, South Korea and other nations about potential compromise.
But trouble loomed at every diplomatic turn.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, visiting Bush at the White House, said, "If there is not a resolution, Ireland cannot engage in support of military action, because we work under the U.N. resolution."
Vice President Dick Cheney spoke by telephone with incoming Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even as Turkey signaled that it wanted a U.N. resolution before allowing U.S. troops to invade Iraq from its borders.
The chief U.N. nuclear inspector urged the Security Council to compromise on proposed disarmament conditions for Iraq, with staggered deadlines and no ultimatum for war.
"I think there's a keen desire globally to do everything before resorting to war," Mohamed ElBaradei told The Associated Press.
In Baghdad, Sabri rejected a British compromise plan that would list six disarmament requirements Baghdad would have to meet or else face "serious consequences." Bush had signaled he would be willing to push back the March 17 deadline seven or 10 days if the gesture would help Blair.
Russia said it would consider the plan. China's U.N. ambassador Wang Yingfan said he doubted the plan could lead to consensus.
The French dismissed the effort outright, sparking a trans-Atlantic shouting match.
"We cannot accept the British proposals insofar as they are part of a logic of war, a logic of automatic recourse to war," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said of France: "They rejected it before Iraq rejected it. If that isn't an unreasonable veto, what is?"
Bush, meanwhile, backpedaled on his pledge to have a U.N. vote by Friday. Fleischer told reporters a tally could slip beyond the weekend.
Aides said the president has pushed for a U.N. vote thus far out of respect for Blair, whose support of Bush has drawn severe criticism in Britain.
Bush and his advisers debated Thursday whether to press forward with the vote or withdraw the measure and pivot quickly to war footing. Bush has long planned to address the nation shortly after the U.N. debate is resolved and give Saddam a final ultimatum, probably including a deadline, for war.
"We are still talking to members of the council to see what is possible," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. The options under consideration include "to go for a vote and not to go for a vote," he added.
Bush said last week he wanted U.N. members to "show their cards" even if that meant the measure failed.
Interviews with several top administration officials suggested a growing number of advisers believe the resolution is doomed and they tend to 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 key is whether Blair wants Bush to give diplomacy another weekend.
In London, Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, emerged from a meeting with Blair to say the prime minister believed war was more likely because "the French have become completely intransigent."
Powell, testifying on Capitol Hill, said the "day of reckoning is fast approaching" for Iraq.
"The United States is committed to the disarmament of the Iraqi regime," Powell said. "We hope it'll be done peacefully. But if it's not done peacefully, the United States is prepared to lead a coalition of the willing that will do it."
He cited several allies that stand ready to back the United States if the U.N. won't, including Britain, Australia, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Japan and eight eastern European countries.
Bush had long been scheduled to attend a St. Patrick's Day celebration at Capitol Hill, but the trip was canceled at the last minute so he could work the phones. The White House also scuttled early planning for a potential European summit between Bush and Blair.
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press