WASHINGTON -- The United States appeared assured yesterday of winning a sizable U.N. Security Council majority behind a resolution authorizing military force to drive Iraq from Kuwait as officials said they were willing to let the proposed deadline for voluntary withdrawal slip by "a couple of weeks."
As Americans continued lobbying for votes and negotiating the final language, the effort gained a boost from the Soviet Union. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev delivered a blunt warning to Iraq's foreign minister that his country faces a "tough resolution" if it fails to withdraw and release foreign hostages.
The U.N. resolution -- its gravity underscored by the expected presence of a number of foreign ministers at a session Thursday presided over by Secretary of State James A. Baker III -- will cap a renewed Security Council focus on the Persian Gulf crisis that formally begins today with a hearing on Iraqi abuses in Kuwait.
The United States has been pressing for U.N. authorization of the use of force to show a still-solid international coalition determined to reverse the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who has shown no sign that he recognizes the prospect of defeat by the hundreds of thousands of U.S.-led forces arrayed against him.
Administration officials also hope U.N. action will solidify congressional backing for President Bush's policies. If this week goes as planned, Mr. Baker will have the resolution in hand before he testifies next week at congressional hearings on the gulf crisis.
A draft circulated among Security Council members over the weekend and yesterday "authorizes member states cooperating with the government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before Jan. 1, 1991, fully implements the foregoing resolutions, to use all necessary means to uphold and implement the Security Council resolutions passed in response to Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and to restore international peace and security in the area."
U.S. officials said the words "all necessary means" are intended clearly to include military force. The draft avoids citing the specific article of the U.N. Charter authorizing action by sea, air and ground forces. This was done, they said, to avoid invoking other sections of the charter, opening the way for U.N. control of the forces.
"Nobody has any doubt what all this is about," an administration official said. "One of these days [Saddam Hussein] is going to find out we're serious."
Diplomats predicted the resolution would draw 12 or 13 votes out of 15. Yemen and Cuba are the most likely to vote no. Colombia and Malaysia, lobbied over the weekend by Mr. Baker, may vote in favor.
Yesterday, the five major powers -- including the Soviet Union and China -- reached broad agreement on a text authorizing the use of force but were still working on a deadline.
A U.S. official said Mr. Baker would be prepared to discuss the gulf crisis with Cuba's foreign minister if he came to New York.
The idea of setting a deadline marks a major shift in U.S. policy. Up until now, the Bush administration has insisted on immediate Iraqi withdrawal, holding open the option of going to war when the alliance chooses.
The Jan. 1 date in the proposed draft is "the softest part" of the language under negotiation, one U.S. official said. Another said the United States is willing to let the date slip by "a couple of weeks," or to about Jan. 15.
The optimum period for launching an offensive is widely believed to be the weeks between now and mid-February, with the massive new U.S. deployment not scheduled to have fully arrived in Saudi Arabia until after Jan. 1.
The U.S. rejected as "unnecessary" Libya's demand that the Security Council convene in Geneva to discuss the crisis. An allied diplomat said it was unlikely that the request would derail plans for the session Thursday in New York.
Meanwhile, a Bush administration official said a recent inspection in Iraq by the International Atomic Energy Agency apparently had turned up no evidence that Iraq was diverting its stockpile of enriched uranium to assemble a nuclear weapon.
The results of IAEA inspections are supposed to be confidential, so the official could not speak definitely. But he expressed confidence that U.S. officials would have learned if any serious problems had been uncovered during the inspection.