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U.S. to OK extension of weapons inspections

But delay would be short; U.S. pushes for vote on an ultimatum

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said that it would accept a short extension of U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq beyond the deadline of Monday it proposed last week but signaled that diplomatic efforts to delay or avert war had all but run their course.

The White House said President Bush would force a vote by the end of the week in the deeply fractured Security Council on an American-backed resolution giving an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader. White House officials said Bush wanted a vote despite France's pledge to veto a resolution on Iraq and doubts about whether the United States can even muster the nine votes needed to adopt a resolution in the absence of a veto.

At the United Nations, Britain and other nations worked frenetically to come up with a compromise. But the White House rejected calls by some nations for a month or more of inspections, and American officials were dismissive of a proposal floated by Britain Wednesday to give Iraq even 10 more days to show that it is complying with demands that it disarm.

Diplomats at the United Nations said the United States might back a plan that would give Iraq seven to 10 days from passage of a new resolution to come into compliance. The proposals under consideration would establish specific tests of Iraq's willingness to disarm and to cooperate with weapons inspectors. Assuming a vote on Thursday or Friday, such a resolution would extend the deadline under the current American-backed proposal by three days to a week.

The maneuvering and the lack of consensus exposed deep strains within and among the Security Council members. Britain in particular was scrambling to develop a compromise that could attract at least eight or nine votes, driven in part by growing domestic pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair not to join in military action alongside the United States without authorization from the United Nations.

Amid growing questions about Blair's political fate, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a news conference at the Pentagon Wednesday that American and British officials were discussing the extent of Britain's participation in any war every day or two, and that the United States could proceed militarily without Britain if necessary.

But Rumsfeld later issued a statement backing away from his suggestion that Britain might not fight alongside the United States.

He said his remarks were intended to point out that "obtaining a second United Nations Security Council resolution is important to the United Kingdom."

Iraqi officials on Wednesday took journalists to the Ibn Firnas State Company just north of Baghdad to view a remotely piloted aircraft that the United States has warned could spread chemical weapons appears to be made of balsa wood and duct tape, with two small propellers attached to what look like the engines of a weed whacker.

The drone's project director accused Secretary of State Colin Powell of misleading the U.N. Security Council and the public.

"He's making a big mistake," said Brig. Imad Abdul Latif. "He knows very well that this aircraft is not used for what he said."

In Washington's search for a "smoking gun" that would prove Iraq is not disarming, Powell has insisted the drone, which has a wingspan of 24.5 feet, could be fitted to dispense chemical and biological weapons. He has said it "should be of concern to everybody."

The drone's white fuselage was emblazoned Wednesday with the words "God is great" and the code "Quds-10." Its balsa wood wings were held together with duct tape.

Meanwhile, the U.S., hoping to rattle Iraqi nerves, debuted its biggest non-nuclear bomb, dropping a 21,000-pound behemoth onto a test range in Florida.

U.S. officials would not say whether the bomb would be used in a war against Iraq. Officially designated the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, it has come to be called the Mother of All Bombs unofficially.

Contributing: Associated Press