UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday giving weapons inspectors the muscle they need to hunt for illicit weapons in Iraq. The vote was a major victory for the United States and started a countdown toward disarmament or war.
President Bush, speaking from the White House Rose Garden, said U.N. Resolution No. 1441 "presents the Iraqi regime with a final test."
The council's approval of the U.S.-draft resolution was a diplomatic coup for the Bush administration and the result of a last-minute reversal by Syria, which had staunchly opposed the plan during eight weeks of intense international lobbying spearheaded by Washington and London.
"There must be no more games, no more deceit," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, referring to Saddam Hussein's regime. "Cooperate fully, and despite the terrible injustices you have often perpetrated on others, we will be just with you."
U.S. diplomats pressed for support until the final moments before the vote, providing Damascus, Moscow and others with critical assurances: The resolution wouldn't be used to launch war on Iraq, and the administration would work through the United Nations to reach a peaceful settlement to 12 years of international conflict with a derelict Iraq.
A deeply disappointed Iraq, stunned by Syrian and Russian support for the American resolution, now has until Nov. 15 to accept the resolution's terms.
France, Russia and China, later issued a joint intepretation of the resolution, insisting that it excludes any automatic use of force and that the Security Council would only discuss Iraqi violations reported by weapons inspectors.
U.S. officials could not immediately comment on the joint statement but U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said earlier that countries also had the right to report violations and that any violation would "be considered and discussed within the council."
And he emphasized that the resolution preserved its right to strike if the council appeared lax in the face of any Iraqi infraction. The Pentagon, which already has tens of thousands of troops in the region, prepared Friday for a fresh troop call-up.
"This resolution doesn't constrain any member state from acting to defend itself against the threat posed by Iraq," Negroponte said.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said an advance team of inspectors will arrive in Baghdad on Nov. 18 after a nearly four-year absence.
The resolution gives inspectors until Dec. 23 to begin work, though Blix has promised to start earlier.
The resolution places much of the onus on Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to immediately report Iraqi violations. The council would then assess the violations and decide how to respond.
But the resolution leaves it up to inspectors to decide what constitutes a violation. Blix, a respected international law expert, says he wouldn't consider minor delays in access to sites or information to be serious breaches.
Iraq's UN ambassador said his government would review the resolution before the acceptance date. Mohammed Al-Douri told The Associated Press he was surprised by Syrian and Russian support for the resolution but that Baghdad wouldn't hold it against its Security Council allies.
"I don't blame anyone. We respect and understand all the votes," he said.
Iraq, which denies it has weapons of mass destruction, announced Sept. 16 that it would finally allow the unconditional return of inspectors barred since December 1998.
The resolution gives the inspectors sweeping new powers to carry out surprise inspections anywhere in Iraq including Saddam's presidential sites, conduct private interviews with any Iraqi citizen, and seal off swaths of Iraqi territory during inspections.
Blix's teams will concentrate on efforts to expose any biological or chemical weapons while the atomic energy agency searches for signs of a renewed nuclear program.
In an effort to prevent a repeat of the cat-and-mouse games Iraq played with inspectors during the 1990s, the resolution threatens Iraq with "serious consequences," if it obstructs their work.
Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Baghdad to cooperate.
"Iraq has a new opportunity to comply with all these relevant resolutions of the Security Council. I urge the Iraqi leadership ... to seize this opportunity and thereby begin to end the isolation and suffering of the Iraqi people," he said.
Russia, which forced reworking of the U.S. draft throughout the deliberations, said the text wasn't flawless but was satisfied the resolution will not, in and of itself, spark military action.
"What is most important is that the resolution deflects the direct threat of war" and opens the road to "a political diplomatic settlement," said Russia's U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov.
Syria's deputy U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said Damascus voted "yes" after assurances from Washington and Paris "that this resolution would not be used as a pretext to strike Iraq." The resolution "reaffirms the central role of the Security Council" and Iraq's sovereignty, key issues for Syria, he said.
The broad support sends a strong message to Baghdad that the Security Council - divided for years over Iraq - expects full compliance with all U.N. resolutions.
Bush, who challenged the United Nations eight weeks ago to get tough with Iraq, said Friday that: "If Iraq fails to fully comply, the United States and other nations will disarm Saddam Hussein. His cooperation must be prompt and unconditional or he will face severest consequences."
A breakthrough in negotiations came Thursday when France and the United States agreed to address French - and Russian - concerns that hidden triggers in the language could automatically spark a U.S.-led attack.
In a key provision that would declare Iraq in "material breach" of its U.N. obligations, the United States changed wording that would have allowed Washington, rather than inspectors, to determine whether Iraq had committed an infraction.
In addition to offering Iraq "a final opportunity" to cooperate with inspectors, the resolution extends the possibility of lifting 12-year-old sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Under a strict timetable, Iraq has until Dec. 8 to declare all its chemical, biological and nuclear programs. Blix said Iraq might have difficulty completing the declaration of its large petrochemical industry in time, but the United States decided against extending the deadline.
Even before the vote, Iraqi state media called it an excuse for war.
"America wants to use this resolution as a pretext and a cover for its aggression on Iraq and the whole Arab nation," the ruling Baath Party newspaper Al-Thawra said Thursday.
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