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Showdown at the UN as U.S. sets March 17 deadline

With reports from Paul Koring in Washington and Jeff Sallot in Ottawa

UNITED NATIONS

tense, emotion-charged UN Security Council session, the United States and its allies gave Iraq a March 17 deadline to avoid war by showing it is handing over weapons of mass destruction.

Diplomats said a vote could come as early as Tuesday on a revised resolution containing the 10-day ultimatum, which says Iraq must turn over all existing documents relating to destroyed weapons.

Sensing that Washington may be only days away from launching a war, France took the highly unusual step of calling for heads of government to show up at the United Nations to vote on the issue.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin hinted strongly that France will veto the U.S.-backed resolution if it gains the nine votes needed to pass on the 15-member Security Council.

"France will not allow a resolution to pass that authorizes the automatic use of force," he told the council, offering to speed up the timetable for UN inspections of chemical and biological weapons sites.

But his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, said the UN should not call for anything short of immediate disarmament.

"It may take time to fabricate further falsehoods," he said. "But the truth takes only seconds to tell."

Mr. Straw was animated as he set out the case for giving Iraqi President Saddam Hussein what is effectively a deadline to avoid war. He was applauded at the end of his speech.

He referred to Mr. de Villepin several times by his first name and at one point addressed him as "my friend Dominique," departing from diplomatic formality.

At the core of Mr. Straw's speech was the announcement of changes to a draft resolution co-sponsored by the United States, Britain and Spain and supported by Bulgaria. It would declare that Iraq has once again failed to comply with weapons-inspection orders dating back to the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The amended text says that unless Iraq "is yielding possession" of banned weapons and records regarding disposal by March 17, the Security Council will consider that it has missed its "final opportunity" to do so.

If passed, it would be the first time Iraq has been given a fixed date for unconditional compliance. An earlier resolution, passed unanimously, warned Iraq of "serious consequences" if it fails to comply, generally interpreted to include military action.

On one level, the changes are a last-ditch bid to gain the support of the so-called "middle six" nations -- middle and minor powers on the Security Council that have not yet said how they will vote.

But since the United States and Britain have said they are prepared to attack Iraq without UN approval, the amendments also constitute a strong hint of their military time line.

Mr. Straw's energetic, politically charged address contrasted sharply with that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who devoted much of his speech to parsing updates given to the council by chief UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei.

Where Mr. ElBaradei said Iraq's attempts to obtain precision aluminum tubes, ostensibly for use in conventional, short-range rockets, had been checked out and found not to be a threat, Mr. Powell said there was "new information" indicating attempts to buy tubes to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Where Mr. Blix saw "an acceleration of initiatives" by Iraq on disarmament, Mr. Powell saw only "small steps."

Outside the council, without naming either inspector, he told reporters: "Some people, in my judgment, simply do not want to see the facts clearly."

Besides urging world leaders to convene in New York, Mr. de Villepin called for speeding up weapons inspection.

He said France would consider shortening the amount of time UN inspectors would have to finish their work once a series of key disarmament tasks is agreed on. It is currently 120 days.

"War is always an acknowledgment of failure," Mr. de Villepin said. Germany and Syria raised similar concerns about a military solution.

Diplomats from the six holdout nations of Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Angola, Cameroon and Guinea refused to commit themselves yesterday, saying they would consult with their governments over the weekend on the new text.

Representatives of Angola and Cameroon, two oil-producing African nations, were highly critical of Iraq -- suggesting they may be closer to the U.S.-British-Spanish position than the French-led camp arguing for stepped-up weapons inspection.

In Ottawa, Foreign Minister Bill Graham said he was encouraged by the British proposal, calling the March 17 deadline "a positive step." Canada had suggested a March 31 deadline.

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