WASHINGTON -- Iraq is in "material breach" of a U.N. disarmament resolution, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared Thursday in a finding that could set the United States on a course toward war with Saddam Hussein.
"There is no calendar deadline," Powell said when asked what comes next. But he cited "a practical limit to how much longer you can go down the road of noncooperation. ... Iraq is well on its way to losing this last chance."
Baghdad's 12,000-page arms declaration, submitted two weeks ago, "totally fails" to meet a Nov. 8 Security Council resolution for an accurate and complete inventory of weapons, Powell told a news conference at the State Department.
"Our experts have found it to be anything but accurate, full or complete," Powell said. Iraq's declaration is "a catalogue of recycled information and flagrant omissions," he said. "The world should view this with great skepticism."
John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, first made the charges at U.N. headquarters. Powell then gave a more formal presentation. President Bush planned to address the matter Friday.
Bush is not likely to decide whether to go to war until late January or early February, administration officials said, and will use the time until then to bolster his case against the Iraqi leader.
While Powell indicated the U.S. rejection of Iraq's declaration was not an immediate trigger for war, he asserted: "The world will not wait forever."
In New York, top U.N. weapons inspectors reported that Iraq's weapons declaration had gaps and inconsistencies.
Iraq's deputy U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Salmane, said the U.S. charges were "baseless," and that his country's report was "complete and comprehensive" and can be verified on the ground by U.N. inspectors.
Powell said Baghdad's report did not even cover information that U.N. inspectors had gleaned before they were forced to leave in late 1998.
For instance, he said inspectors had then concluded that Iraq could have produced 26,000 liters of anthrax, three times what Iraq had declared. "Yet the Iraqi declaration is silent on these missing supplies," he said.
"We are disappointed, but we are not deceived," Powell added. "We have seen this game again and again; an attempt to sow confusion to buy time, hoping the world will lose interest."
He said the United States would press for Iraqi scientists and others with knowledge of Iraq's weapons programs to be interviewed in a location where they can speak freely, preferably outside Iraq.
Powell cited a decade of past Iraqi violations of U.N. resolutions since the Persian Gulf War. "These are material omissions that in our view constitute another material breach," the secretary said of the current Iraqi declaration.
The decision to declare Iraq in "material breach" represents a turning point in the standoff with Iraq. One senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision signals that Bush is "ramping up" toward war.
As many as 50,000 U.S. troops may be deployed in early January for duty in the Persian Gulf area. The officials said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had yet to sign the deployment order. More than 50,000 U.S. troops already are in the Gulf region.
Iraq asserts in its document that it has no weapons of mass destruction, a claim the United States rejects.
Under the terms of the resolution passed Nov. 8, false statements or omissions in the declaration - coupled with a failure to comply with inspections - would be a "material breach" of Iraq's obligations to disarm.
Although Saddam has thus far complied with inspections, many Bush advisers wanted Bush to liberally interpret the resolution's language. They argue that Saddam is taking advantage of a two-step test for "material breach" and should be found in violation if he violates either the inspections or the declaration provisions.
Even with the finding that Iraq has violated the resolution, Bush plans this week to launch a deliberative diplomatic process that would push the prospects for military action into late January or February.
Powell said Bush has made clear the United States intends to stay within the U.N. process. He also has noted that chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, have until Jan. 27 to complete their analysis of the declaration and to report formally to the council.
In Iraq, inspectors were delayed Thursday getting into a military guest house north of Baghdad, in the second known snag as renewed inspections program moved into its fourth week.
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