Transatlantic differences over Iraq threatened to set back America's timeline for an invasion yesterday when the European Union warned the US that there could be no war against Saddam Hussein without clear proof that he holds banned weapons.
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, issued a blunt reminder to Washington that only the UN security council could determine whether military action was justified.
European governments and public opinion believe overwhelmingly at this stage that it is not justified, because the work of weapons inspectors has been inconclusive.
Tony Blair is expected to fly to Washington this month to amplify the message that the UN be given "time and space" to deal with Iraq in discussions with George Bush. Aides say Mr Blair also intends to meet Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, before Dr Blix delivers his assessment on Iraqi compliance on January 27.
"Without proof, it would be very difficult to start a war," Mr Solana told the French daily Le Monde. "The legitimacy of such a war will be determined by the security council. The UN arms inspectors derive their legitimacy from the council... so if there is not any information deemed sufficient by the security council... I would find it very difficult to act."
Mr Solana's uncharacteristically tough comments came after inspectors reported on Thursday that they had uncovered no "smoking guns" in their work so far - making it harder for President George Bush to win over skeptical international opinion.
The change in mood in Europe was acknowledged in the US, where officials emphasized that Washington would not see the weapons inspectors' next report on January 27 as a decision day for war, as had previously been thought.
"We view this as an important reporting date," the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said yesterday. "This will give the inspectors a certain amount of time that they can look back and make assessments about Iraqi compliance."
Other officials spoke about the importance of preserving Washington's diplomatic victory in gaining international support for a tough weapons inspection regime.
"I think that our government is going to continue to work with the UN," said Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the foreign relations committee. "We wish the timetable was more clear. That may not be the case. But we have to work very cooperatively with a multinational group of people."
That realization has raised hackles among administration hawks, who are beginning to talk about "slippage". Such fears were given voice in a tirade against the secretary of state, Colin Powell, by a conservative commentator in the Washington Post yesterday.
"Did Powell go to the United Nations to garner support for the president's policy? Or did he go to undermine that policy and implement instead the preferred Powell policy of 'containment' - leaving Hussein in place - by setting up an endless inspection process that keeps America at bay?" wrote Charles Krauthammer.
Fueling the sense of gathering crisis, the EU said it had earmarked €15m (£9.7m) for humanitarian aid to Iraq. The US has already been irritated by Greek plans to send an EU mission to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to avert war. That would soon turn to anger if it also went to Baghdad.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003