Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that the United States might choose to abandon a second U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Iraq only a week after President Bush vowed to force countries to take sides on the issue.
Powell's comment, taken together with a White House announcement that if a Security Council vote does occur it will not happen until sometime next week, appeared to be evidence the White House is losing hope of winning a majority vote on the resolution and may proceed to war without one.
U.S. officials in recent days have said, without providing evidence, that they were within striking distance of reaching the necessary nine votes on the deeply divided Security Council. But officials were noticeably gloomy Thursday after a British compromise plan offered Wednesday was largely rejected by the six countries that are officially undecided.
In addition to an almost certain French veto, and the possibility of a Russian veto, officials said they were convinced they would not even achieve what they call the "moral victory" of nine votes among the council's 15 member nations.
The apparent defeat of the resolution would be a stunning diplomatic setback for President Bush and his closest partner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. U.S. officials have made it clear that they only agreed to pursue a second resolution at the request of Blair, who needed the imprimatur of the Security Council for a war against Iraq to shore up political support at home. But the failure to win all but a handful of votes for military action is an unusually public rebuff of the United States.
Diplomatic tension ran high Thursday, as U.S. and British officials assailed what they considered high-handed intransigence on the part of France, which rejected the British proposal even before Iraqi officials did so in Baghdad. Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, appeared wan and haggard as he attempted to gather support for a compromise that would lay out conditions for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to meet to avoid a war.
But diplomats said the U.S. insistence that Hussein be given only until next week to disarm was too much and too fast for the other countries on the council.
Though administration officials rejected proposals from the undecided nations to let weapons inspectors continue for a few more weeks, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the United States' No. 2 military officer, told military experts at the Pentagon Thursday that a delay of a month or more in invading Iraq could easily be dealt with by the military and would not increase American casualties.
White House officials said they are proceeding with plans for Bush to address the nation once the diplomatic process is over. The speech would include a final "ultimatum to avoid war" to Hussein and would serve as the signal for international officials, foreign diplomats and journalists who choose to evacuate Iraq that war is imminent.
Administration officials Thursday also began laying the groundwork for Bush to reverse his pledge to call for a Security Council vote, no matter how bad the vote count looked, because "it's time for people to show their cards." Under one scenario, the administration could say the resolution was being withdrawn at the request of the co-sponsors, Britain and Spain.
Powell told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday: "The options remain go for a vote and see what members say, or not go for a vote. But all the options that you can imagine are before us and we will be examining that today, tomorrow and over the weekend."
Powell's statement came after days of rumors that he believes it would be politically less damaging to go to war without a U.N. vote rather than under the shadow of an explicit rejection of military force. The White House made no effort to distance itself from Powell's comment.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer sidestepped questions about whether Bush would still call for a vote.
"Your premise is suggesting that in the conducting of diplomacy there can be no room for flexibility," he told reporters. "And as the president travels the last bit of this road, he is going to work to consult with our allies and friends."
Bush did not attend a St. Patrick's Day luncheon on Capitol Hill so he could take an urgent phone call from Blair, who asked for several more days to make the case to Security Council members after defeat appeared certain in a vote that had been scheduled for today, a senior administration official told the Washington Post.
Due to face Parliament on the Iraq question Tuesday, Blair hopes that delaying what appears to be inevitable defeat until Monday will enable him to tell the House of Commons that he made the maximum negotiating effort.
Unlike the Bush administration, British officials said that they are not resigned to defeat and that both Bush and Blair will continue intensive telephone diplomacy over the weekend as they try to persuade at least five of six publicly uncommitted council members to vote for the measure.
The British resolution, supported by the United States, Spain and Bulgaria, needs nine of the 15 council votes for passage, and no veto by any of the five permanent members. Two permanent members, France and Russia, have indicated they would veto the measure, and France repeated Thursday that even a revised version of the resolution was "unacceptable."
In the face of likely vetoes, Britain and the United States have been struggling to secure the nine votes. To get there, they need at least five of the six uncommitted members _ Guinea, Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico and Pakistan _ to add to the four original supporters.
In addition to France and Russia, Germany, Syria and China, which also is a permanent council member, have indicated they will not vote for the resolution. Although final decisions are now likely to be put off until Monday, Chile and Mexico were expected to tell Britain that they will not support the measure.
_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.