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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 11 March, 2003, 20:55 GMT
Clash over Iraq looms at UN
British ambassador to the UN, Jeremy Greenstock
"Don't look beyond March" says the UK ambassador
The deeply divided United Nations Security Council has started an open session on the Iraq crisis amid suggestions of imminent US-led military action.

It began with a verbal assault on the United States by the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Mohamed al-Douri, who accused the Americans of "desperation" in their attempts to prove that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

British diplomats have been seeking possible amendments to a new US-backed Security Council resolution on Iraq, to avoid what BBC correspondents say looks like an inevitable defeat in the 15-member body.

Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is under growing domestic pressure to obtain a resolution backing military action if British troops are to take part.

Such is Mr Blair's predicament that US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested on Tuesday that American forces might go to war without the assistance of their British allies.

However, the British Government has expressed surprise at his comments and insists it is still in the vanguard of military planning.

Deadline, possibly 10 days, for Iraq to make strategic decision to disarm
17 March deadline to be postponed
Destruction of banned weapons
Evidence of previous claims of destroyed weapons
Interviews with Iraqi scientists abroad

The British ideas for amending a new Security Council resolution include extending the deadline for Iraq to give up banned weapons beyond the current proposal of 17 March, or putting down a series of disarmament benchmarks by which Iraq can be judged.

Some of the undecided, non-permanent members of the Security Council are looking to extend any deadline to disarm into April - a move flatly rejected by Washington, which is also insisting that a vote on any resolution will take place this week.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The vote will take place this week... There's room for a little more diplomacy here but not much room and not much time."

The British ambassador to the UN, Jeremy Greenstock, said: "The UK is in a negotiation and is prepared to look at timelines and tests together, but I'm pretty sure we're talking about action in March."

Russia and France have made it clear that they will veto any resolution that gives the green light for war, but the Americans and British say they will not be bound by such a move.

There is some suggestion that if the nine votes required to pass the resolution are mustered before it is vetoed, then the Anglo-American side would claim this as a "moral victory".

Mr Blair has criticised the decisions of the French and Russians, saying: "If countries talk about using a veto in all sets of circumstances, the message that sends to [Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] is: 'You're off the hook'."

The British prime minister said he was working "flat out" for a new Security Council resolution.

Efforts are focusing on swaying the six undecided members of the body - Angola, Guinea, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico and Pakistan.

Air raids

The US and Britain have built up a massive military presence in the Gulf region.

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus says American and British planes patrolling longstanding "no-fly zones" over Iraq are stepping up raids on air defences in the country to weaken them ahead of a wider conflict.

President George W Bush

In the Iraqi capital Baghdad, UN weapons inspectors - who returned to the country late last year under a previous Security Council resolution - have given a fresh progress report on their work.

Spokesman Hiro Ueki said the Iraqis had destroyed three more of their al-Samoud II missiles, banned by previous UN resolutions, bringing the total destroyed to 55 out of about 100.

Asked about Iraqi "drone" aircraft, he confirmed that three of the pilotless planes had been discovered - one of which, he said, had a wider wing span than was permitted by UN rules.

"We need to investigate whether this particular drone is capable of flying beyond the permitted 150km range, and whether it has the capability of carrying chemical and biological weapons," he told reporters.

He also said questions remained about alleged Iraqi stocks of anthrax, VX nerve gas and other weapons programmes, but added that no "smoking gun" - clear evidence of Iraqi non-compliance with inspectors - had been uncovered.

Spy planes withdrawn

Deputy US Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz signalled the American administration's growing impatience with the diplomacy and inspections route.

"Should we wait until the people inside of Iraq who are willing to help us give up all hope?" he asked.

"Or should we wait until (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein finishes preparing weapons of mass terror, weapons that will further endanger our troops?"

Meanwhile, two American U-2 spy planes supporting UN inspections were withdrawn from Iraqi airspace following a complaint from Baghdad.

The Iraqis say they received an apology from the UN after questioning the presence of the two planes in its airspace. Baghdad said one of the aircraft flew in from Saudi Arabia, when the agreement with the inspectors was that all surveillance flights would fly in from Kuwait.

In other developments:

  • The US military says it is testing a massive 21,000 pound bomb - known as the MOAB: Massive Ordnance Air Burst or, unofficially, the Mother Of All Bombs - which may be used in any conflict with Iraq

  • Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan becomes prime minister, clearing the way for a fresh vote on US troop deployment

  • The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, calls on world governments to observe a ban on the forced return of rejected Iraqi asylum-seekers, because of the risk of armed conflict in Iraq

  • One of the highest religious authorities in Islam, al-Azhar university in Egypt, denounces the threat of war on Iraq and endorses an appeal for jihad (armed struggle) to defend the country

  • Veteran US diplomat John Brown resigns in protest over US policy towards Iraq, becoming the second career foreign service officer to do so in the past month

  • The UN Children's Fund begins an urgent effort to keep hundreds of thousands of malnourished Iraqi children alive if there is war.

The BBC's James Robbins
"A few small countries have the power to give or withhold moral support"

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