The United States sent a powerful signal last night that it will soon abandon efforts to win a second United Nations resolution, in effect clearing the decks for military action against Iraq late next week.
Washington left the door open to a few extra days of diplomacy so that frantic negotiations on Britain's near-moribund compromise plan could continue over the weekend. A vote that had been expected today could be put off until Monday, White House officials suggested.
But the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, confirmed that the resolution could be simply withdrawn if the campaign to win votes was seen to be failing. War could follow swiftly. "We are still talking to members of the Security Council to see what is possible," General Powell told a hearing in Congress. He said the options still open included not going for a vote.
At the same time, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said President George Bush would allow Britain to keep trying a bit longer, perhaps until Monday.
"It may conclude tomorrow. It may continue into next week," he said. But he also indicated that the President might reverse the promise he made last week that "no matter what the whipcount" the US would force the issue to a vote.
Mr Bush "has always decided that the US didn't need a second resolution to act," Mr Fleischer declared.
As time ran short on the diplomatic front, the British Government launched a blistering attack on France, blaming Paris for the likely collapse of its attempts to secure a new resolution.
Tony Blair's official spokesman accused the French government of injecting "poison" into the diplomatic bloodstream. He attacked French "intransigence", insisting that Britain was winning support for a fresh resolution until Monday night, when Jacques Chirac, the French President, said he would veto it.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said it was "extraordinary" that France, without proper consideration, rejected Britain's plans for a new resolution including six tests to measure Saddam Hussein's willingness to disarm. "The comment from the French government that it would veto whatever the circumstances has made negotiations very difficult," he said.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, said Mr Blair told him at a Downing Street meeting yesterday that agreement on a new UN resolution was "further away than it had ever been". Military action "has become more likely", the Conservative leader said.
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, said France had signed up to resolution 1441 so it was "an unreasonable blockage" if it failed to support a second resolution.
Taken aback by the vitriol of the British attacks, Paris suggested last night that it was still open to compromise in the UN, within limits. "Everything must be tried to preserve the unity of the Security Council and we are working towards that," said Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister. "France confirms its openness to seize all opportunities," he added.
However, he made it clear that Paris would still not accept anything resembling a war ultimatum while inspections were making progress. Officials said France had a problem with the idea of an ultimatum or automatic recourse to war.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN, continued desperate efforts to sell the British plan, which would retain a short deadline for President Saddam to come into compliance with UN resolutions but would also give him the chance to meet six tests to demonstrate that he was willing to disarm.
In an effort to win over the six wavering countries on the Security Council, Britain indicated it was willing to scrap one of the tests, which demanded that President Saddam go on live television to acknowledge his arsenals.
It was the notion of the Iraqi leader being forced into a humiliating capitulation before his own people that gave many other countries on the Council most pause on Wednesday, when the British plan was first presented. Some said that it was not for the Security Council to make such a request.
But there was little optimism at Downing Street of a breakthrough, even after the signs of a more conciliatory line from France. "We'll believe it when we see it," said one British official.
In another sign that war is imminent, the Queen postponed a state visit to Belgium next Tuesday and Wednesday on Downing Street's advice. Mr Blair's official spokesman said it was "sensible" for the Head of State to be in Britain rather than abroad.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd