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Iraqi jets threaten 2 U.S. spy planes

Incident called proof that Saddam won't cooperate

WASHINGTON — While the Bush administration was decrying the lack of support from the U.N. Security Council — an expected vote on a U.S.-British led resolution setting a March 17 deadline for Iraq to disarm was delayed — Iraq seemed to bolster the administration's contention that Iraq can't be trusted to comply with U.N. demands by threatening two American U-2 surveillance planes.

Iraqi fighter jets threatened the planes, forcing them to abort their mission and return to base, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.

A Pentagon official said the decision to end the mission was "in the interest of safety."

The U-2 planes were flying missions at 2 a.m. Iraqi time for the U.N. weapons inspectors when Iraq launched fighter jets. According to two of the officials, the threat was directed against one of the two planes, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Multiple flights are permitted under a U.N. Security Council resolution approved last November, and the Bush administration sought clarification from U.N. inspectors after the U-2 flights were suspended.

The U.N. inspection agency, known, as UNMOVIC, had given advance notice to Iraq of the flights, said the U.S. official.

The Iraqi threat is fresh evidence of Baghdad's unwillingness to cooperate with U.N. inspectors, another U.S. official said.

U-2 flights are conducted as part of an elaborate inspection arrangement designed to determine whether President Saddam Hussein has secretly stored chemical and biological weapons in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

The U-2 incident followed a White House declaration on Monday that the U.N. Security Council's failure to act against Iraq would not only compound mistakes it made in the 1990s but it would also encourage North Korea and Iran as they race to build nuclear arsenals.

Behind the scenes President Bush dialed around the world to try to build support for the new resolution.

It soon became apparent, however, that those efforts would not be enough to gain the votes needed to pass it. As such, the United States and Britain signaled Tuesday they would extend for a short period a deadline for Saddam Hussein to disarm or face war.

They rejected, however, a 45-day delay sought by six swing council nations.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted Tuesday that the resolution would be put to a vote this week but said a proposal being floated to push back the March 17 deadline by a month was "a non-starter."

"There is room for diplomacy here," Fleischer said. "Not much room and not much time."

Ambassador Martin Belinga-Eboutou of Cameroon said he and five other ambassadors from Mexico, Chile, Angola, Guinea and Pakistan would suggest a deadline of 45 days.

British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said the March 17 deadline could be extended but not by that much. Britain is "prepared to look at time lines and tests together, but I'm pretty sure we're talking about action in March. Don't look beyond March," he told CNN.

Efforts by the United States and Britain to have the resolution passed have been complicated by the declaration of President Jacques Chirac of France that "whatever the circumstances, France will vote 'no.' " He stated unequivocally that he would veto any new resolution opening the way to war. Russia, also a veto-wielding permanent member, echoed that view.

Fearing defeat in the Security Council, Britain — apparently with the administration's reluctant acquiescence — raced to offer compromises that might induce the uncommitted members to vote in favor of military action. Chief among them is the listing of specific disarmament "benchmarks" that Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader, would have to meet to avoid war.

"What people are asking us to do is define more precisely for them, to define what it is that would allow us to say, 'Yes, he is cooperating,' or not," the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said on Monday.

Administration officials seek a nine-vote majority on the 15-seat council both to avoid fueling contempt for the United States if Iraq is invaded and to protect Blair from a political backlash in Parliament over British participation in any offensive.


Contributing: New York Times News Service, Associated Press.