us urges march 17 deadline for iraq

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    US urges March 17 deadline for Iraq

    UNITED NATIONS - The United States, Britain and Spain have proposed a March 17 ultimatum for Iraq to cooperate fully with disarmament demands or face war.

    However, their UN draft resolution still lacks a majority and faces a possible veto.

    Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced the new resolution at a tense United Nations Security Council meeting on Friday (NY time). The text was circulated shortly afterwards and could come to a vote next Tuesday.

    "Iraq will have failed to take the final opportunity ... unless on or before March 17, 2003, the Council concludes that Iraq has demonstrated full, unconditional, immediate and active cooperation with its disarmament obligations," it said.

    France, which has Security Council veto power, rejected the ultimatum minutes after Straw spoke. Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said: "This is the logic of war. We don't accept this logic," he said.

    German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also rejected it, saying: "This is an ultimatum which immediately leads to a military action."

    The United States and its allies have more than 300,000 troops with more than 500 warplanes and dozens of warships ready to strike in a war to remove President Saddam Hussein and his government.

    President George W. Bush said on Thursday he would press for a Security Council vote to be taken even if it seemed the resolution would be defeated or vetoed.

    But the president vowed to go to war with or without UN approval to fulfil what he saw as his duty to protect the American people from the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

    Going to war without UN approval would be certain to stoke an already powerful anti-war movement around the world, intensify anti-American sentiment and could shake the political support of important allies, including Prime Minister Tony Blair.

    The ultimatum said Iraq must hand over to UN inspectors all weapons, delivery systems and support systems and structures banned by the United Nations and also provide information about the prior destruction of such items.

    Iraq's UN ambassador Mohammed Aldouri said the new US-British draft was ridiculous. "So they will give us only 10 days to give up all we have? We have to dig all of our desert? Really, this is nonsense. We are doing our utmost. We can't do more," he said.

    Prospects that the new resolution would pass the Security Council seemed slim. It would need the votes of nine of the 15 members and no vetoes to succeed. In addition to France, China and Russia also said they were opposed to war and any of the three could kill the resolution by using their veto power.

    The United States so far only has four sure votes in its corner - its own with those of Britain, Spain and Bulgaria.

    In speeches on Friday, it also failed to pick up support from any of the six uncommitted Security Council members. Two of them -- Chile and Pakistan -- seemed to be leaning towards the anti-war camp.

    Pakistan's UN ambassador Munir Akram said: "The cost of delay in our view will be much less than the cost of war."

    Speaking before the new resolution was tabled, de Villepin said: "France will not allow a resolution to pass that authorises the automatic use of military force."

    Russia and China also said they opposed war. "There is no reason to shut the door to peace," said Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan.

    The day at the United Nations began with a mixed report from UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix that left the major powers more divided than ever on the looming war.

    Blix's latest report gave something to both sides. He told the Security Council that Iraq's move to begin destroying its al-Samoud 2 missiles constituted "a substantial measure of disarmament" but criticised the rate at which the Iraqis had handed over documents on prohibited chemical and biological systems.

    But US Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed Blix's talk of increased Iraqi cooperation, saying he still found "a catalogue of non-compliance" by Baghdad.

    Straw said it was, "perfectly possible, achievable and necessary for Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime to bring themselves into compliance" within a few days if Saddam made the decision and gave the order to fully cooperate.

    Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency, also gave his report to the Security Council, saying there was no evidence Iraq had resumed its nuclear programme.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told Bush hours ahead of the UN debate that Moscow was determined to press for a diplomatic solution. He also told Blair by telephone that a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis was still possible,

    Of the other neutral nations, Mexico, Cameroon, Guinea and Angola remained on the fence Friday. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez summed up their position by saying all parties should keep working for consensus.

    Chile appeared to lean against the US position. Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear said: "The statements we have heard lead us to believe that a solution that reconciles a yearning for peace and disarmament is still possible."

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