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Bush Plans More Diplomacy Before Final Decision on Iraq

By Mike Allen and Karen DeYoung
THE WASHINGTON POST -- President Bush plans at least two more weeks of diplomacy before deciding whether to attack Iraq and may support a deadline for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to visibly destroy his chemical and biological weapons, administration officials said Monday.

Officials said the United States and Britain are likely to push for an enforcement resolution in the United Nations Security Council this week. One option being considered, a senior administration official said, was a demand for “actual disarmament” by Iraq within a specified number of days.

“It would say, ‘This is your last window,’” the official said.

Meeting Monday in Brussels, the 15 European Union leaders agreed that U.N. weapons inspectors should get more time to find and destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and declared that a war against Iraq “should be used only as a last resort.”

Officials here and in London discussed how to regain momentum lost last week, when chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told the council that some progress was being made, even though Baghdad was still not cooperating fully with disarmament demands. A majority of members, including France, Russia, China and Germany, then said that inspections should be given more time before there was any consideration of the use of military force.

As the administration has tried to keep the pressure on Iraq, it often has implied in the past two months that a final deadline was near. Officials suggested Monday that Bush’s rough timetable has always been slightly longer than many diplomats assumed when he announced on Jan. 30 that the issue of how to deal with Saddam would be resolved in “a matter of weeks, not months.”

But this time, the administration appears to have left little room for retreat from a timetable heading toward a final decision in about two weeks. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Sunday implied that what she called a “diplomatic window” would close following the next council meeting at the end of this month, when members will again hear an assessment of Iraqi cooperation from Blix. She was dismissive of a French suggestion that the council schedule yet another meeting on March 14.

U.S. and British military deployments to the Persian Gulf region will then have reached levels more than adequate for an attack by early to mid-March. Although senior military officials have said that troops could remain in the region for “months” without any action, planners have expressed concern about fighting in the intense heat that falls over the region in early spring.

While the administration has consistently maintained that it does not need another council resolution to launch an attack against Iraq, it has so far bowed to the wishes of Britain and Spain, its two main council allies. Dozens of other countries whose support the administration has claimed also have said they would prefer a U.N. imprimatur on any action.

In addition to a possible final deadline for Iraq, other possibilities for a new resolution include declaring that Iraq already has violated the November council demand that it disarm immediately and completely. The resolution would not spell out any consequences requiring members to agree to military action, but the administration would assert that such approval was implied.