UNITED NATIONS — The United States and Britain asked the U.N. Security Council on Friday to set a March 17 deadline for proof that Saddam Hussein has disarmed, though France and others said they want to give weapons inspectors more time — and that war with Iraq could lead to catastrophe.
France indicated it would veto the deadline even if approved by the full council. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said President Bush is ready to move forward in any case.
"The clock continues to tick, and the consequences of Saddam Hussein's continued refusal to disarm will be very, very real," Powell said during a testy debate, arguing that Saddam is toying with weapons inspectors.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin called the proposed deadline a trigger for war and said, "France will not allow a resolution to pass that authorizes the automatic use of force."
Instead, backed by the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Germany and others, de Villepin stressed reports by U.N. weapons inspectors that they are making progress.
He challenged the Security Council with what he called, "the very same question being asked by people all over the world: Why should we now engage in war with Iraq? And I would also like to ask, why smash the instruments that have just proven their effectiveness?"
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw argued that diplomacy sometimes requires force. He also repeatedly referred to his French counterpart by his first name, disputing his assertion that the choice is "disarmament by peace or disarmament by war."
"Dominique, that's a false choice," Straw said. "I wish that it were that easy, because we wouldn't be having to have this discussion. We could all put up our hands for disarmament by peace and go home."
Straw won applause from normally restrained U.N. officials, echoing the reception de Villepin received after an anti-war plea on Feb. 14. De Villepin won only scattered applause this time around.
After the debate, Security Council members held a series of private meetings to discuss the new proposal, which Bush administration officials described as a closing of the diplomatic window.
While they do not expect Saddam to comply with the deadline, Bush administration officials said they backed the idea to show support for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He faces heavy opposition at home and is eager to get a new U.N. resolution holding Saddam in continued violation of disarmament demands.
That may not be so easy. Analysts said the proposal — an amendment to a pro-force resolution proposed last week by the United States, Great Britain and Spain — suggests they are having trouble with the 15-member Security Council, which requires nine votes for approval.
Administration officials also said the March 17 date should not be read as a final warning to people still in Iraq, and that Bush would likely address the nation before any war commences.
"This is coming to an end in short order," said one senior administration official.
Mohammed al-Douri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, again denied accusations that his country is hiding weapons of mass destruction and called the 10-day deadline a pretext for aggression.
"The objective is the complete takeover of Iraq's oil, domination of the entire Arab region, politically and economically," he said.
Publicly and privately, U.N. diplomats argued about whether inspections or the prospect of force is the best way to ensure that Saddam does not have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Critics of a possible war drew strength from the report by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. He said that, thanks in part to the increased international pressure, Iraq has stepped up cooperation in recent weeks, and that time is needed to follow up.
"It will still take some time to verify sites and items, analyze documents, interview relevant persons, and draw conclusions," Blix said. "It will not take years, nor weeks, but months."
He cited improved interviews with Iraqi scientists, a "significant Iraqi effort" to account for past chemical and biological programs, and the recent destruction of missiles that exceeded U.N. restrictions on range.
"We are not watching the breaking of toothpicks," Blix said. "These are lethal weapons that are being destroyed."
Later during the hearing, Powell cited intelligence reports that Iraq is still building the kinds of missiles that were recently destroyed.
"The problem is, we don't know how many missiles there are," Powell said, "how many toothpicks there are."
Powell also cited a new written report saying Iraq has yet to account for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs stretching back to the end of the Gulf War in 1991. He also questioned why it has taken so long for Iraq to start working with the inspectors, noting that the Security Council passed its last disarmament resolution back on Nov. 8, one that required "immediate, active, and unconditional cooperation."
"Not later — immediate," Powell said. "Not passive — active. Not conditional — unconditional in every respect."
Mohamed elBaradei, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, again reported that Iraq has not revived its nuclear program. He specifically disputed the U.S. contention that Iraq sought especially thick aluminum tubes and magnets to help enrich uranium.