UNITED NATIONS -- The Security Council, delivering an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, voted 12-2 yesterday, with China abstaining, to allow the United States and its allies to go to war against Iraq if it fails to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15.
The big majority, one vote short of most previous anti-Iraq resolutions, put an international stamp on the military threat made clear by President Bush when he decided to double the number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.
One of the main purposes of the resolution, said British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, is "to blow away the uncertainties" about the world's intentions.
But China's abstention diluted the united great-power front that has backed the Security Council's steadily increasing pressure on Iraq.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, lobbied by Secretary of State James A. Baker III only hours before, said that by authorizing force the resolution ran counter to the consistent position of the Chinese of solving disputes peacefully.
Yemen and Cuba opposed the measure.
The vote followed three weeks of world-ranging appeals for votes by Mr. Baker.
"We must put the choice to Saddam Hussein in unmistakable terms," he said yesterday as he presided over a session that drew 13 of the Security Council's 15 foreign ministers.
Kuwait was not the first and "probably not the last target on his list," Mr. Baker said. Failure to withdraw, allow restoration of the Kuwaiti government and release hostages would bring about a "disaster," he said, in which Mr. Hussein would "risk all."
Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Amir al-Anbari, calling the resolution a violation of the U.N. Charter, charged that Mr. Bush was trying to secure from the United Nations the authorization for war that he has been unable to persuade U.S. Congress togive him.
The resolution authorizes, but doesn't require, military action after Jan. 15. Several speakers on the Security Council emphasized that it now allowed a pause that put full responsibility for future events in Iraq's hands.
This "pause of goodwill" represented "one last sincere attempt to give common sense a chance to prevail," said Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze.
But Yemen's ambassador, Abdalla S. al-Ashtal, said, "In the annals of the United Nations, this will long be remembered as the war resolution."
Cuba's foreign minister said, "More than once, the council has allowed itself to be drawn into hasty decisions that did not promote the cause of peace." The minister, Isidoro Malmierca, said that the Security Council had been asked "to support a deadline for war."
In imposing a deadline six weeks away, the Security Council rejected arguments, echoed by prominent Democrats in Congress, that sanctions have a good chance of accomplishing the U.N. goal if given more time to work.
Yemen's ambassador argued that it wouldn't take long for sanctions to hurt Iraq badly and compel it to withdraw from Kuwait. They were,he said, "almost absolutely airtight."
Mr. Baker said that yesterday's vote was crucial to the United Nations' credibility and endurance. Citing the League of Nations' failure to respond to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, he -- said, "History has now given us another chance. . . . We must not let the United Nations go the way of the League of Nations."
Following the vote, the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council were to meet over dinner to explore ideas on the "next steps" to take diplomatically, Mr. Baker said.
He said that over the coming weeks, they would be "vigorously pursuing" a peaceful solution. "We want to talk about what the prospects are for further political and diplomatic efforts."
The resolution did not specifically cite military force or the section of the U.N. Charter that permits it.
Rather, it authorized "member states cooperating with the government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before 15 January 1991 fully implements [previous resolutions], to use all necessary means to uphold and implement" the previous resolutions "and to restore international peace and security in the area."
Its failure to cite Article 42, which allows for military action, was aimed at allowing the United States and its allies to launch hostilities without putting their forces under U.N. direction.
But Yemen's Mr. al-Ashtal said that this would produce action by forces without U.N. authority or accountability.
He also said that the resolution was so broadly worded as to allow the states with forces in the region to decide the prerequisites for "peace and security in the area," leading perhaps to a larger conflict.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato Abu Hassan said that the Security Council would be compelled to authorize any actual decision to use force, although most other Security Council members appeared to disagree.
Mr. Baker said later that the resolution was "self-executing," in that "we don't have to come back to the U.N. before force can be used."
He also said a decision to use force would involve "a political decision at the highest levels" in the countries that have sent forces to the gulf.
In what appeared to be a warning to Iraqi military personnel, several speakers warned that anyone using chemical or biological weapons would be held personally responsible.