U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States and other permanent U.N. Security Council members including France are nearing an agreement on a resolution returning U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq. He also suggests the Bush administration is giving ground on the key issue of what might trigger military action against Iraq.
Mr. Powell says he thinks the negotiators are "getting much closer" to an agreement after weeks of discussions, and that he expects a conclusion to the policy debate over Iraqi disarmament by the end of next week.
The secretary made the comments to U.S. public radio as he continued intensive telephone diplomacy over Iraq that included calls Wednesday to, among others, French Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin and Russian Foreign Igor Ivanov.
The United States has been seeking a single Security Council resolution sending U.N. inspectors back to Iraq and threatening Saddam Hussein with military action if it did not cooperate with the U.N. teams.
France has been holding out for a two resolution process that would authorize the use of force only after Iraq had been deemed to have not complied with an initial Security Council demand to give up weapons of mass destruction.
In the radio interview, Mr. Powell signaled U.S. readiness to compromise, saying a second round of Security Council debate would be "fine" with the Bush administration.
But he said if the council refuses to act in the face of Iraqi non-compliance, the United States "must be free with other like minded nations to deal with this danger."
The secretary also conceded it would be "a matter of months" before U.N. inspectors, once dispatched on a new mission to Iraq, could determine if Iraq was complying with the Security Council seemingly pushing back the prospect of an early military conflict over the issue.
Though signaling compromise, the Bush administration reiterated its view Wednesday that the political relevance of the United Nations is at stake in the Iraq debate.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the authority of the world body could be lost if Iraq refuses to disarm despite repeated Security Council demands that it do so:
"We want the U.N. to succeed," said Mr. Boucher. "We want the inspectors to succeed. We want the U.N. to succeed. But succeeding means Iraq's disarmament. And unfortunately Iraq's cooperation cannot be assumed based on their past history. But yes, we want the U.N. to show its relevance, and to get that kind of disarmament. That's how we want to solve this problem, if possible."
President George W. Bush met at the White House Wednesday with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. A spokesman said Mr. Bush thanked Mr. Blix for his service and stressed the need for an inspection plan that is effective. The last U.N. inspection teams in Iraq were withdrawn in 1998 in advance of the U.S.-led air strikes against suspected Iraqi weapons sites, and were barred from returning by Saddam Hussein.