WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III announced yesterday that he was calling a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday to authorize military action against Iraq as the administration warned that Iraq could acquire some nuclear weapons capability within a year.
A resolution being drafted by the United States would specify a deadline of about a month for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or confront military action by the U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf.
A senior official who traveled with Mr. Baker on his 10-day trip to round up U.N. votes for a use-of-force resolution said, "We are in for a very tough fight" in the council.
But Mr. Baker's decision to go ahead with the meeting indicated that the administration was convinced it had mustered enough support.
Opposition would probably focus on setting a deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
The United States reportedly wants a timetable that would fall in January [the Associated Press quoted sources last night as saying the proposed deadline was Jan. 1]; other nations would prefer to allow more time for economic sanctions to bring about a peaceful settlement.
The State Department sent invitations early yesterday to the foreign ministers of the 15 nations that make up the Security Council; all but one or two are expected to attend.
Mr. Baker had pressed for a council meeting this week, while the United States holds the rotating presidency. Next month, the presidency goes to Yemen, which opposes using force against Iraq.
Continuing the administration's drive to win U.N. backing for possible military action in the Persian Gulf, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser, took to the airwaves yesterday to warn in blunt terms of the growing nuclear threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Although the administration has been reluctant in the past to estimate how soon Iraq might be able to deploy nuclear weapons, both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Scowcroft said estimates ranged from less than year to produce a crude device to as long as five to 10 years to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons.
Mr. Cheney said on the CBS program "Face the Nation" that Iraq now possesses nuclear material that could be fashioned into a weapon able to inflict "some damage."
Expanding on this message, Mr. Scowcroft said on ABC's "This Week" that Iraq's growing nuclear capability "has to be considered among other reasons" for turning to the use of force in the gulf.
"Building even one [nuclear weapon] could make a significant difference for troops fighting in the region," said Mr. Scowcroft.
These warnings followed the heavy emphasis placed by President Bush on Iraq's nuclear threat when he made his Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.
"Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam Hussein's atomic weapons program in years may be underestimating the reality of the situation and the gravity of that threat," the president said.
Preparing for the U.N. Security Council session, the administration intends to start circulating today or tomorrow a draft resolution that skirts use of the word "force" in sanctioning military action in order to attract enough votes and avoid a council veto. Instead, the resolution would authorize taking "all necessary means" to enforce past U.N. resolutions demanding that Mr. Hussein withdraw from Kuwait.
But Mr. Scowcroft said that, regardless of wording, the resolution would pertain to the use of military action, if necessary, if Baghdad refuses to give up Kuwait.
"The council will want to explore a resolution that would make very clear that member states could utilize all necessary means after a certain date to implement the prior resolution," Mr. Baker told the Los Angeles Times and the Reuters news agency Saturday night during a jet flight to Houston from Los Angeles, where he had concluded a globe-hopping mission to gather votes.
"The clear message of such a resolution to Saddam Hussein will be that there is still a chance to resolve the matter peacefully within the time frame," Mr. Baker said.
The council has passed 10 gulf resolutions since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, all of which were approved with 13 or more votes, but a resolution authorizing military action is considerably more controversial.
Nine votes are needed to pass a resolution, but any of the other four permanent council members -- France, Britain, the Soviet Union and China -- can exercise a veto.
Unofficial tabulations indicated that seven nations had committed themselves publicly to vote for such a resolution, with an additional five, including the Soviet Union and China, likely to go along.