Bush heads for Azores talks

As diplomacy fades, U.S., Britain and Spain to plan their strategy for Iraq

`Moment of truth is coming'

White House cautions summit isn't a war council

March 15, 2003|By David L. Greene and Mark Matthews | David L. Greene and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On the verge of abandoning diplomacy and making final plans for war, President Bush scheduled a trip to an Atlantic Ocean island tomorrow to meet with the leaders of Britain and Spain, part of a U.S.-led coalition that would invade Iraq in the absence of United Nations support.

Administration officials described the hastily arranged one-day summit as a strategy session on how to move from U.N. diplomacy toward military action. Bush will confer with Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain at a military base in the Azores.

"The purpose," a senior State Department official said, "is to bring diplomacy into its closing phase, to look at the U.N. and at how to close the window of diplomacy with a bang loud enough for Saddam [Hussein] to hear."

The summit is also intended to shift attention away from the fierce resistance the United States has run into at the United Nations. U.S. officials worry that the spectacle of squabbling and division at the U.N. Security Council has emboldened Hussein to continue to delay disarmament.

Given the reluctance to back war at the United Nations, the summit will underscore that the United States is ready, with its allies, to use force to disarm and remove Hussein, if he does not immediately disarm or leave Iraq and go into exile.

A White House official cautioned that tomorrow's summit "is not a war council." But in a sign that the meeting is not expected to produce a new diplomatic plan, America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, will not make the trip to the island, 900 miles west of the Portuguese coast.

U.S. officials held out the dimmest of hopes that they could still cobble together nine votes to pass an American-sponsored resolution, which declares that Hussein missed his final chance to disarm and authorizes war.

They said that if Mexico and Chile could be persuaded to back the resolution, the four other undecided countries on the Security Council - Pakistan, Angola, Cameroon and Guinea - might then fall in line. To win their support, Blair, who desperately wants U.N. authorization, may try to get Bush to agree to a delay until the end of March for Iraq to take significant steps toward disarming.

But if diplomacy produces no more votes in the council, the White House is considering dropping the resolution and waging war without one. Bush has said that if the United Nations failed to back military action, he would lead a coalition to disarm and oust Hussein's regime.

White House officials said Bush would not compromise with several undecided Security Council members who favor a proposal to give Hussein several weeks more to disarm voluntarily. These officials said the president was committed to his belief that the United States has legal authority to invade Iraq with no further U.N. action.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told reporters that the summit would give the three leaders a chance to discuss "ways in which the United Nations security process can come to a conclusion."

"A moment of truth is coming," Rice said earlier in the day, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel. "It is coming soon, and that is what the leaders are going to meet to discuss in the Azores."

War could come soon

According to polls, a majority of Americans support using military force to disarm Hussein. Aides say Bush has allowed the U.N. process to carry on this far only to help Blair and Aznar, whose countries overwhelmingly oppose war and who would be better able to justify military action if it were approved by the United Nations.

White House officials have said Bush is ready to take his case for war to the American people in a prime-time television address before ordering an invasion. The Associated Press reported yesterday that aides had begun to craft the speech, with an eye to the president's delivering it as early as next week.

In another sign that war could be imminent, the State Department warned Turkey yesterday that time has "nearly run out" for Ankara to decide whether to permit American troops to be stationed in Turkey for an invasion of Iraq.

"We must operate on the assumption that the hostilities may begin without an agreement between the United States and Turkey," said Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman.

Turkey's parliament voted to bar the American invasion forces, and Turkey's government has delayed seeking a new vote.

The summit tomorrow, though intended to send a message of resolve to Hussein, is unlikely to produce an ultimatum for him to disarm or go into exile to avoid an attack, a White House official said. Such a warning would likely come in a Bush speech, aides said.

Diplomats said that if the resolution were put to a vote in the Security Council now, it might not draw support from any nations other than its three sponsors and Bulgaria. The tepid response Thursday to a compromise initiative offered by Britain made the outlook for the necessary five additional votes bleak.

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