March 16, 2003
Posted at: 2:00 p.m. CST
LAJES, Azores Islands - President Bush and allied leaders agreed on one final attempt to win world backing Monday for the swift disarmament of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "Tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world," the president said at a Sunday summit with allies.
"Now we make a final appeal to make a strong, unified message on behalf of the international community," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who met with Bush and the leaders of Spain and Portugal in the Atlantic island summit.
Bush urged other nations to support "the immediate and unconditional disarmament" of the Iraqi leader. France, Germany and Russia have opposed an additional United Nations resolution to set an ultimatum for the Iraqi leader to disarm. And efforts to win the votes of uncommitted nations at the U.N. Security Council faltered in recent days.
The four men met at an American air base in the Azores, Portuguese territory in the Atlantic Ocean.
They gathered with more than 250,000 troops gathered in the Persian Gulf area poised to strike if and when the president gave the word.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said the agreement among the leaders marked "a last chance, one last attempt to reach the greatest possible consensus among ourselves."
Bush sounded like he didn't expect reluctant countries to change their minds.
Asked whether Monday was the day that would determine whether diplomacy could work he replied, "That's what I'm saying."
"We hope tomorrow the U.N. will do its job," Bush said. Alternatively, he said, "Saddam Hussein can leave the country if he's interested in peace."
The president was scornful of France's role in the diplomatic tug of war that has unfolded in recent months.
Noting that he said 10 days ago he wanted the nations of the Security Council to show their cards, he said, "France showed their cards. After I said what I said, they said they were going to veto anything that held Saddam to account."
French President Jacques Chirac said earlier Sunday he was willing to accept a 30-day deadline for Iraq to disarm, provided the move was endorsed by U.S. weapons inspectors.
Two thousand miles away, Vice President Dick Cheney brushed that suggestion aside in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," recounting a long list of French actions that he said had let Saddam avoid disarmament.
Blair noted that some nations oppose any ultimatum to Saddam.
The result, he said, is that the Iraqi leader is playing a game that "he has played over the last 12 years. Disarmament never happens but instead the international community is drawn into some perpetual negotiation," he said.
"Now we have reached the point of decision," he said.
Portugal Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso called the Azores summit "the last chance of a political solution. It may be a small chance but if there is only one chance in a million it's worth trying this opportunity."
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "Is it time to bring the curtain down on this or is there some hope?" Cheney appeared to answer the question, saying, "There's no question but what we're close to the end, if you will, of the diplomatic efforts."
Cheney, among the senior administration officials who appeared on talk shows in Washington to stress the diplomatic push but also that war was nearing, said "Clearly, the president's going to have to make a very, very difficult and important decision here in the next few days."
Asked if Bush were preparing a speech, spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "That is an option. I'm not going to predict the exact timing of it." White House officials said last week that an address, which they said could come as early as Monday, was expected to serve as a final ultimatum for Saddam to disarm or face war.
While saying that "a moment of truth is arriving," Powell suggested that the Iraqi president could avert a war in his country by fleeing to another nation along with his top lieutenants.
Powell said he thought there were countries that "would be willing to do that as their contribution to avoiding a war."
At the same time, he said would advise weapons inspectors, humanitarian aid workers and journalists now in Baghdad "to take a hard look at the situation they are in, and it would be probably better for them to start leaving or making plans to leave."
The summit also had a more symbolic purpose: to show the three leaders — particularly Blair and Aznar, who need political cover at home for their much-criticized alliance with Bush — as willing to make perhaps a final diplomatic push to win international backing for war.
Still, the chances appeared slim of finding a way through the U.N. impasse.
A senior U.S. official acknowledged it would be nearly impossible to round up the necessary votes to win passage of the war resolution.
But the U.S. official said the leaders' gathering would remind the world that the three countries head a coalition ready to act soon.
"I'm not expecting, really, a new proposal," Powell said. "There is a good, solid proposal on the table now."
"Some members of the council, frankly, have not been that helpful in applying maximum pressure to Saddam Hussein for him to do so," Powell said.
France and its two allies in the anti-war bloc, Russia and Germany, said in a joint declaration Saturday that there was no justification to use force and to stop weapons inspections. They called for a foreign ministers' meeting Tuesday to discuss a "realistic" timetable for Saddam to disarm.
Powell said he was discussing the idea with colleagues in Spain and Britain.