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Leaders try 'last push' for peace

| Saturday, March 15, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The White House announced Friday it will make a "last push" for peace at a Sunday summit in the Azores with allies Britain and Spain, but U.S. officials acknowledged that the United States is now resigned to the failure of its diplomatic efforts on Iraq and is preparing to go to war without a U.N. resolution.

As their focus shifts from diplomacy to coalition-building, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair announced plans to soon unveil a long-delayed "road map" to create a Palestinian state and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although officials insisted that the move wasn't linked to Iraq, it may bolster support -- or at least damp criticism -- for military intervention among potential Arab allies in the Middle East.

In recent weeks, Bush has increasingly sought to link his campaign to disarm Iraq to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that ousting President Saddam Hussein would bring peace to the Middle East.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice described this weekend's summit on the Portuguese-owned Atlantic islands halfway between the United States and Europe as "a last push" for Bush, Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to find a diplomatic solution. "But the moment of truth is coming soon," she said.

While the leaders prepare to chart the next steps, diplomats will continue over the weekend to try to rally the ninth critical vote required for the passage of the resolution authorizing force against Iraq. If last-minute diplomacy secures all nine, then Washington is still prepared to ask for a vote at the United Nations, officials said.

But with the U.S. rejection yesterday of a Chilean proposal to bridge the Security Council schism, the Bush administration now believes that Mexico and Chile, two key votes, will stand together and reject the U.S.-backed resolution.

That would leave the United States, Britain and Spain, the co-sponsors, with no more than eight votes. And with the odds now visibly mounting, U.S. officials predicted that other countries that had privately signaled support will abstain.

If the vote count falls short, the White House is prepared to pull the resolution, despite the pledge by Bush on March 6 to press the 15 Security Council countries to take a stand, whatever the results.

U.S. officials are increasingly talking of the so-called Kosovo option, after the 1999 U.S. decision to bomb Yugoslavia to stop its repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province without getting U.N. approval. At that time, the administration feared a veto from Russia.

Against the backdrop of unraveling diplomacy, the United States also faces difficulties on the military front. A U.S. presidential envoy said the Bush administration told Turkish leaders yesterday it has given up lobbying to use their country as a base to assault Iraq, ending months of intense effort to deploy tens of thousands of troops to a northern front against Hussein.

The envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, delivered the messages nearly two weeks after Turkey's parliament refused to authorize a deployment of 62,000 American troops and after its top political leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, balked at a backup proposal to open Turkish airspace to U.S. missiles and warplanes for a bombing campaign in Iraq.

The Azores summit is meant to finalize strategy and to signal Iraq the final push is coming. "The meeting is to tell Saddam that whatever hopeful sounds he hears out of Paris, the reality of his future will be decided in the Azores -- and he will face that reality within days," said a well-placed official who requested anonymity.

The United States also will signal that it will not accept any further token gestures by Baghdad to comply with weapons inspectors.

Administration officials say they probably could get the resolution if they negotiated for another month. But the decision to end diplomatic efforts, barring a last-minute miracle, reflects the desire to end the process before the "Saddam stall" gains new momentum.

Iraq has dribbled out weaponry for U.N. inspection teams over the last few months, just enough to satisfy council members such as the French and Russians, who would like to see inspections continue, but not enough for the United States and Britain, who say they want to see immediate and total surrender of any proscribed weapons.

Nearly two weeks after it was promised, Iraq delivered a 20-page document late yesterday to U.N. weapons inspectors detailing its claims to have destroyed 3.9 tons of the nerve agent VX. Iraqi officials said they are finishing a report that explains how it disposed of at least 2,245 gallons of anthrax and expect to deliver it next week.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has said Iraq claims to have simply poured it into the ground. Inspectors can verify the presence of such substances in soil samples, he said, but not the quantity.

In the face of such uncertainties, some council members find it difficult to definitively judge whether Iraq is fully disarming or not, and whether military action is warranted. Several countries, including some Arab allies and even veto-holders Russia and China, would prefer that the United States pull the resolution, said diplomats, rather than force them to make that decision.

"At this point, it is better to take the resolution off the table," said China's ambassador to the U.N., Wang Yingfan. "It doesn't have enough votes here."

Chile and Mexico floated a new, last-ditch initiative yesterday to close the gap between the council's two sides and help the council measure Hussein's cooperation. It proposed three or four weeks for Iraq to complete five disarmament tests, and to be prepared to face "serious consequences" if it failed.

"We are trying to build a bridge," said a diplomat from Cameroon. "But it is not yet strong enough for the big trucks to go over it."

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quickly dismissed the timeframe as too long, and the package as "a non-starter."

In a brief Rose Garden appearance, Bush focused his remarks on another proposal. In a six-minute statement, Bush announced that he intends to unveil a road map to create a Palestinian state by 2005 on land now controlled by Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The president said he would make his recommendations "immediately" upon the confirmation of Mahmoud Abbas, known also as Abu Maazen, as the new Palestinian prime minister. Abbas may be confirmed by the end of next week.

"Once this road map is delivered, we will expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document that will advance true peace. We will urge them to discuss the road map with one another," Bush said. "The time has come to move beyond entrenched positions and to take concrete actions to achieve peace."

The one caveat Bush mentioned was that Abbas, as prime minister, must wield "real authority" if he is to be "a credible and responsible partner." Bush previously has called for the removal of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and there is some question whether Arafat will grant a prime minister that authority.

Bush's new push for the Middle East initiative may have been an attempt to portray himself as a man of peace -- all the more important just days from the possible start of a war to disarm Iraq. At the same time, championing a Palestinian state is likely to help keep the anti-Iraq coalition of Arab states that Bush has assembled from splintering.

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