The US says Saddam Hussein has no intention of disarming
The United States and three of its staunchest allies are launching a diplomatic drive to secure the UN Security Council votes needed to pass a new resolution against Iraq.
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has backed the hawkish US stance despite mounting domestic opposition, spoke on Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia, a key veto-wielding member of the Security Council, remains hostile to military action.
As early as Monday, Mr Putin and other members of the Security Council may be presented with a draft version of a new UN text - expected to declare Baghdad in material breach of the last resolution on Iraq - 1441 - passed in November.
While this draft may not explicitly mention military action, the November text threatened "serious consequences" if Iraq broke the terms of Resolution 1441 - which the US insists Baghdad has already done.
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Mr Blair was also involved in a four-way conversation at the weekend with US President George Bush, the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Spanish leader Jose Maria Aznar.
Mr Aznar - speaking after talks with Mr Bush at his Texan ranch - said all four would now endeavour to push a new resolution through the Security Council.
For the resolution to be approved, the four men need to persuade at least nine of the 15 Security Council members that action against Iraq is justified.
Permanent members France, Russia and China all oppose the US hardline, but it remains unclear whether they will go so far as to wield their veto.
For military action: US, UK, Spain and Bulgaria
Sceptics or opposed: France, Russia, China, Germany and Syria
In doubt: Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan
Nine votes and no veto required to pass a resolution
Germany and Syria also oppose action, while only four members - the US, Britain, Spain and Bulgaria - have said they would vote in favour of it.
The votes of the six members who have not yet made up their minds will therefore be crucial if the US is to win the mandate it wants to force President Saddam Hussein to surrender the weapons of mass destruction it insists he possesses.
Russia, France and China however stress that all political and diplomatic means to resolve the crisis should be exhausted before any such means are considered.
Downing Street would not provide specific details of Mr Blair's conversation with Mr Putin, but Russia's ambassador to Britain, Grigory Karasin, told the BBC on Sunday that his government believed the UN inspection process was working.
Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is also reported to have flown to Iraq on behalf of President Putin.
The purpose of the trip is unclear.
Mr Bush meanwhile has reiterated his warning that the UN risks becoming an irrelevance if it refuses to back him.
He also said he was not willing to wait two months for the council to approve a new text - the time it took to approve Resolution 1441.
While the Bush administration has made clear it would welcome a second resolution, it has nevertheless stressed that it will lead a "coalition of the willing" into war if it fails to win a UN mandate.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated he expected a vote shortly after 7 March, when chief weapons inspector Hans Blix is due to deliver a report to the Security Council.
The allies will be closely monitoring Iraq's compliance with Mr Blix's latest demands. He has given Baghdad until 1 March to start destroying its al-Samoud II missiles.
The UN says their range exceeds the limit set after the 1991 Gulf War.
That demand is being seen as a key test of whether Saddam Hussein will disarm to avoid war.
There has been no formal response from Baghdad, but Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri insisted any disagreements could be resolved with the inspectors.
On Saturday, the man in charge of nuclear inspections, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Iraq was still not doing enough to convince the world it had no banned weapons.
In other developments:
- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warns a US-led attack on Iraq would be seen in the Islamic world as part of a war against Muslims.
- US officials say warplanes patrolling the air exclusion zone in southern Iraq have bombed six military communications sites after Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery opened fire.
- Washington says a tentative agreement has been struck with Turkey to allow the deployment of US troops on Turkish soil. A vote in Turkey's parliament is not expected before Tuesday.
- Pope John Paul II urges Tony Blair to find a solution other than war to the crisis with Iraq, during a private audience at the Vatican.