US, Britain and Spain propose March 17th deadline for Iraq

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The United States, Britain and Spain yesterday proposed a March 17th ultimatum for Iraq to show full co-operation with UN disarmament demands or face an American-led invasion, writes Conor O'Clery, North America Editor, at the United Nations

The deadline will be added to an amended resolution that originally stated that Iraq had missed its last chance to disarm, and will be put to a vote in the UN Security Council next week, probably on Tuesday.

However, the resolution faces defeat at the UN. France, which has Security Council veto power, and several other council members, rejected the idea of an ultimatum last night.

French Foreign Minister Mr Dominique de Villepin said: "This is the logic of war. We don't accept this logic. I have said we could not accept any ultimatum."

Asked if this meant France would use its veto, he said: "I think you have your answer."

German Foreign Minister Mr Joschka Fischer also rejected the plan, saying: "This is an ultimatum which immediately leads to a military action."

British Foreign Secretary Mr Jack Straw announced the new resolution during a tense session of the UN Security Council, after which the text was circulated to members.

It states: "Iraq will have failed to take the final opportunity ... unless on or before March 17th, 2003, the council concludes that Iraq has demonstrated full, unconditional, immediate and active co-operation with its disarmament obligations."

The resolution also demands that Iraq hand over to UN inspectors all weapons, delivery and support systems and structures banned by the UN, and provide information about the prior destruction of such items.

The resolution requires nine votes and no veto on the 15-member council. If it is passed, the council must meet again to make its final judgement on Iraq's compliance with disarmament obligations.

Iraq's UN ambassador, Mr Mohammed Aldouri, said: "So they will give us only 10 days to give up all we have? We have to dig all of our desert? Really, this is nonsense. We are doing our utmost. We can't do more."

President Bush said on Thursday he would press for a Security Council vote to be taken "no matter what" to see who would stand by the United States. The deadline was inserted at the insistence of Britain, America's strongest ally in its confrontation with Iraq, which desperately wants UN sanction for any military action to counter growing domestic opposition to war.

Mr Bush, declaring at a prime-time press conference that the crisis was in its "last phase of diplomacy", said the US would go to war with or without UN approval, in order to protect the American people from the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, if Iraq did not disarm.

China and Russia, which also have veto power, said they were opposed to war. Of six undecided countries that could tip the numerical balance, Syria, Angola and Chile seemed to favour the anti-war camp. Pakistan's UN ambassador, Mr Munir Akram, said: "The cost of delay in our view will be much less than the cost of war."

Asked whether Angola could accept the new text, Angolan ambassador, Mr Ismael Gasper Martins, said: "Unfortunately not. I don't think it's the sort of compromise that we were looking for or that we can support, not yet."

The US and Britain are expected to step up pressure on these countries to create a situation where, if France used its veto, it would be thwarting the will of a majority of members. The US has so far only three other guaranteed votes: Britain, Spain and Bulgaria.

Chief weapons inspector, Dr Hans Blix, told the meeting that co-operation by Iraq had accelerated; the destruction of missiles by Baghdad was evidence of a substantial measure of disarmament.

Dr Blix said Iraq had recently provided additional documentation on anthrax and the VX nerve agent. "Many have been found to restate what Iraq has already declared."

US Secretary of State Mr Colin Powell told the council that Iraq had not made a strategic political decision to disarm. He insisted that Saddam Hussein's performance was "still a catalogue of non-co-operation" and the world body "must not walk away" from supporting force to disarm Iraq.

Mr de Villepin asked: "Why smash the instruments of inspection when they are proving their value?" He added: "France will not allow a resolution to pass that authorises the automatic use of military force. To those who believe that war would be the quickest way to disarm Iraq, I would reply that it will drive a wedge and inflict wounds that will be long in healing."

Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Tang Jiaxuan said: "There is no reason to shut the door to peace."