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US Says March 17 Iraq Deadline is Firm - 2003-03-11

Despite French and Russian veto threats, the Bush administration mounted an intensive diplomatic drive to win backing for a U.N. resolution in effect authorizing war with Iraq. Administration officials expressed a willingness to amend the U.S.-British-Spanish draft to get more support, but say they are firm on a March 17 deadline for Iraq to accept full disarmament or face the use of force.

The U.S. battle for the resolution was being waged mainly by telephone, with the focus on the six elected members of the security council still officially undecided on how they will vote, including Guinea, Angola, Cameroon, Mexico, Chile, and Pakistan.

Secretary of State Colin Powell Monday called Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Dervez, and held a bilateral meeting and working luncheon here with Guinea's Foreign Minister Francois Fall, whose government currently holds the Security Council chairmanship.

Mr. Powell also called his British and Spanish counterparts to coordinate strategy on their resolution, while at the White House President Bush was engaged in telephone diplomacy, speaking to among others, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

In a talk with reporters here after meeting Secretary Powell, the Guinean Foreign Minister Fall did not say how his government would vote on the U.S. backed resolution. But, he said, as chairman, he is trying to maintain the unity of the security council at what he said was a "critical" juncture while settling the Iraq crisis peacefully. "We are trying to solve the problem peacefully. That is our goal," he said. "Our goal is first Iraq should respect all the resolutions of the Security Council, and also we are trying work to do that peacefully. That's our main goal."

Standing alongside Mr. Fall, Secretary Powell said he, too, was committed to finding a peaceful solution but one which involves Iraq relinquishing its weapons of mass destruction. As Mr. Powell spoke, his French counterpart Dominque de Villepin was in Africa meeting with leaders of the three African Security Council members and in effect campaigning against the U-S backed resolution.

Mr. Powell however insisted he did not see himself as being in competition with Mr. de Villepin. "I'm in no competition with Dominque de Villepin. He does what he has to do and I do what I have to do. We are both working for causes we believe in. We are both trying to consult with all the members of the council," said Mr. Powell. "As you see, I have been in touch today at some length with the Foreign Minister of Guinea and I have been on the phone most of the morning with nations around the world."

A vote on the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution could be held at the security council as early as Wednesday. The United States is struggling to get the nine votes on the 15-member council needed to approve it, though a veto by a permanent council member would kill the measure.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the three resolution sponsors are willing to consider further amendments to win the support of wavering council members, though he made clear the Bush administration is firm on the March 17 deadline. "We chose the date of March 17 because we felt it was an entirely appropriate date. We've always known in the past that Iraq doesn't take any steps unless faced with a deadline. We've always known in the past that Iraq does not act except at the last minute," said Mr. Boucher. "So why given them a month when they wouldn't do anything until the last minute anyway."

At the White House, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said a veto would be "more than a disappointment." The administration has made clear it is ready to lead a military coalition to disarm Iraq even in the absence of a new resolution if Saddam Hussein refuses to disarm.