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U.S., Britain wage final battle for council votes

The Bush administration prepared a final diplomatic push Saturday to prevent the United Nations Security Council from defeating a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, even as teams throughout the government focus on the increasing likelihood of war.

Advisers mobilized as President Bush charged anew that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is violating U.N. disarmament demands in a "willful charade." He declared in his weekly radio address that the Iraqis are continuing "to play a shell game."

"We are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq," Bush said, "but if Saddam Hussein does not disarm peacefully, he will be disarmed by force."

Senior administration officials made clear Saturday that they would be stunned if Hussein satisfied a U.S.-British-Spanish demand to surrender his most dangerous weapons by March 17.

As a Security Council showdown neared after weeks of increasing bitterness and division, the United States and its chief ally, Britain, hurried to persuade six undecided countries to support a resolution authorizing force. Leading the opposition, and holding veto power in the council, France is pursuing the same nations in a campaign to defeat the plan to end U.N. inspections.

President Jacques Chirac's office issued a statement Saturday rejecting the proposal before the Security Council, saying "the ultimatum resolution is not acceptable and therefore will not be accepted by France."

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin set out to argue his case in person in the capitals of three of the undecideds: Angola, Cameroon and Guinea.

The leader of one of the undecideds, President Ricardo Lagos of Chile, said the March 17 disarmament deadline provides "too little time." His comments, along with Chirac's, illustrated the U.S. difficulty of winning nine votes and avoiding vetoes from any of the council's permanent members.

On Saturday, Russia charged that unilateral U.S. military action would violate the U.N. Charter.

"We believe that it is not necessary at present to adopt any new resolutions," Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said in comments released Saturday by the Foreign Ministry. "If the United States unilaterally begins military action in relation to Iraq, it would violate the U.N. Charter, and, of course, when the U.N. Charter is violated, the Security Council must gather, discuss the situation and make the corresponding decisions."

All indications suggested U.S. diplomacy and the president's long-standing determination to topple Hussein were likely to be tested within days. Bush wants to end this stage of the confrontation with Iraq with an up or down vote on the resolution by the end of the week, officials said Saturday. The president has said he is prepared to invade Iraq with or without U.N. approval.

Officials in Washington reported a debate over whether to let the U.N. vote proceed if it appears the United States would lose, the New York Times reported. They said there was no question that the vote should go ahead if the United States believes it can win at least nine votes, even if France or Russia vetoes the resolution.

In a sign of how imminent that assault may be, U.N. military observers began withdrawing civilian staff Saturday from posts along the Iraq-Kuwait border. The move came as hired contractors cut seven gates wide enough to accommodate tanks in the fence that U.S. forces would have to cross if they invade Iraq from the Persian Gulf state.

Senior U.S. officials devoted time Saturday to plans for governing a future Iraq as they prepared for the growing possibility that Hussein could be toppled soon, or even quit power. While more pieces are being put into place, still undetermined are the roles of international figures and institutions, and the parts to be played by Iraqis from inside and outside the country.

The administration planned its next steps after a Security Council session Friday that seemed to sharpen the determination of Washington's opponents. Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix credited Iraq with improving its recent cooperation and said it would take months to complete the searches ordered by the council in November.

Bush intends to renew personal appeals to the leaders of Security Council countries beginning Monday, said aides, who reported that he will ask them for their vote directly as if he were on the campaign trail or working a tight congressional vote.