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Last Updated:  Sunday, 16 March, 2003, 18:26 GMT
Allies meet for crisis summit
Tony Blair, George W Bush and Jose Maria Aznar
Decision time on military action is fast approaching
US President George W Bush is holding an emergency summit in the Azores with the UK and Spanish Prime Ministers as hopes fade for a peaceful resolution of the Iraq crisis.

Mr Bush and his two staunchest allies, Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, are insisting that their talks are a last chance for diplomacy.

But the BBC's Mike Wooldridge, reporting from the Azores, says the meeting is widely seen as a prelude to war.

Iraq, meanwhile, has been put on a war footing as US and other forces continue to mass in the Gulf.

During their talks, the three leaders are deciding whether to abandon their efforts to persuade the United Nations Security Council to back their draft resolution which says President Saddam Hussein has failed to seize the opportunity to fully disarm his country of weapons of mass destruction.

No reconciliation

The leaders are also reported to be considering issuing a final, stark ultimatum to the Iraqi leader.

"We are in the diplomatic endgame," a spokesman for Mr Blair told reporters on the flight to the summit.

There was a limit to how long conversations could go around in circles, he said.

Our correspondent says this all suggests that there is little or no possibility of reconciliation between the three leaders and the rival camp led by France, Russia and Germany - at least as long as they cling to their insistence that there is still mileage in the weapons inspections and the case for war has not been made.

Just hours before the Azores summit, French President Jacques Chirac said in an American television interview that he was willing to accept a month's deadline for the weapons inspectors to finish their work.

"I am fully prepared to accept whatever practical working terms the inspectors will propose," Mr Chirac said in the interview, which is due to be broadcast later in the day.

But his suggestions were rejected by US Vice-President Dick Cheney who said: "We're approaching the point where further delay helps no-one but Saddam Hussein."

In other developments:

  • US Secretary of State Colin Powell says he can see no point in a new meeting of the UN Security Council and warns journalists and other people to consider leaving Baghdad

  • Pope John Paul appeals for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, saying: "There is still time to negotiate, there is still space for peace"

  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrives in Tehran for talks with Iranian leaders expected to focus on the threat of war

  • Germany urges its citizens to leave Iraq "immediately" and prepares to close its embassy in Baghdad

  • France, Russia and Germany call for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday to discuss a "realistic" timetable for Saddam Hussein to disarm

Inside Iraq, Baghdad officials said they were working on a declaration covering alleged stocks of anthrax which they would deliver to the UN within two days.

They have already handed over another document accounting for VX nerve agents.

Military moves

And on Sunday, they gave the UN photographs and videotapes of mobile laboratories which they say show that mobile laboratories are harmless and not part of a production line for germ warfare, as alleged by Britain and the US.

Map showing Iraq's new military zones
The Iraqi authorities have invited the chief weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei to Baghdad for urgent talks, but no response is expected before Monday.

Amid signs that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis will soon be exhausted, correspondents say both Iraq and its opponents are finalising military preparations.

Saddam Hussein announced four military command zones covering the whole of Iraq.

His son Qusay has been put in charge of safeguarding Baghdad and his home town of Tikrit, while a general known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged role in gas attacks on Kurds is in command of the Basra region which could be one of the first areas invaded.

US forces in the Gulf now top what our Pentagon correspondent calls the "magic number" of 250,000 personnel and both US and UK forces say they are ready for any military assault.

US intelligence agents have also drawn up a list of senior Iraqi officials - including the Iraqi leader and his two sons - they believe should be tried for war crimes, the New York Times reported.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Helen Simms
"Many believe it's a council of war"



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