WASHINGTON - The United Nations Security Council is close to approving a new American-prepared plan to disarm Iraq, a resolution that would set up a series of deadlines that will test Iraqi cooperation and could also prepare the ground for U.S.-led military action to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.
To gain broader international support, the United States and co-sponsor Britain agreed to wording that could make for uneasy relations between the Bush administration and U.N. weapons inspectors, and lead to new disputes between the United States and other Security Council members.
U.S. officials formally presented their final proposal for a resolution yesterday and say they are confident enough of victory to seek a vote in the Security Council tomorrow. Their measure would give Iraq "a final opportunity" to disclose and dismantle its programs to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons or face "serious consequences," a euphemism for war.
The vote, which could still be delayed, will be the culmination of eight weeks of strenuous diplomacy after President Bush's challenge to the United Nations on Sept. 12, when he demanded that the world body face up to the threat posed by Hussein or slip into irrelevance.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made clear this week that while the administration hoped to avoid a conflict, a war, once under way, would have the aim of overthrowing the Iraqi regime "because the regime simply will not respond to its obligations to the U.N."
The new U.S. text spells out a series of early tests of Iraqi cooperation and of U.N. - and American - determination. The first would come one week after passage of the resolution, when Iraq must "confirm" that it intends to comply fully.
Twenty-three days later, Iraq must make a complete disclosure to inspectors and the Security Council of all its programs for weapons of mass destruction, including missiles, drones, systems for dispersing chemical or biological agents, stockpiles, laboratories and production facilities.
Small teams of inspectors plan to enter Iraq within 10 days, but actual inspections would not be required to get under way for about six weeks. About 3 1/2 months from now, the U.N. inspectors will be required to "update" the council.
"We will know very early on whether Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government plan to cooperate," Powell said Monday.
Inspectors could alert the Security Council at any time about Iraqi obstruction. The resolution directs them to report to the council "any interference by Iraq with its inspection activities." Their "update" in mid-February would fall within what military experts say is the optimum time to go to war to prevent U.S. soldiers from having to fight in Iraq's oppressive summer heat.
The resolution gives the inspectors powerful leverage to use with Iraq in carrying out a task that will require a combination of detective work and scientific skills.
But it also poses a test of their objectivity and independence, and could be a recipe for friction between the two top inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei, and hard-liners in the Bush administration who are eager to see the U.S. military topple Hussein.
Aggressive tactics by inspectors in the past, in close collaboration with the United States, allowed Iraq to score propaganda points and weakened support in the Security Council for the whole inspections program.
"We do not have what I would call a confrontational approach. We expect cooperation," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will search for evidence of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program. Another U.N. official added: "We are not there to be a tripwire."
Blix has already warned the council that Iraq would have difficulty preparing a complete disclosure in 30 days, particularly on petrochemical plants that might also be producing chemical weapons. For a while, the Security Council weighed giving Iraq extra time.
And Blix told the Security Council yesterday that it would be difficult to fulfill another key Bush demand: that inspectors have the authority to take key scientists and other knowledgeable Iraqis out of Iraq, together with their families, to be interviewed.
Bush has said this would prevent the Iraqi regime from silencing the scientists by pressuring their families. Some administration officials also see this as the inspectors' most promising tool and also one likely to disturb Hussein, possibly causing a confrontation.
The new resolution hints strongly that Bush administration officials will keep up steady pressure on the inspectors to probe deeply in Iraq. It urges "member states" not only to supply information but also to recommend sites to be inspected, persons to be interviewed, "conditions of such interviews" and data to be collected, and it requires the inspectors to report to the Security Council on the results.