UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ Iraq's acceptance of a U.N. order to destroy one of its newest missile systems provides ammunition to Security Council members who believe Saddam Hussein can be disarmed peacefully.
But tough criticism of Iraq's sincerity from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, who said Baghdad's disarmament efforts had been ``very limited so far,'' also fuel U.S. arguments that Iraq is failing to comply with its obligations.
The Security Council is deeply divided over whether to support a U.S.-backed resolution that would authorize war in Iraq, or continue on the path of inspections as a French-led proposal suggests. A heated closed-door discussion on Thursday did little to bridge the gap.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia is ready to veto the U.S. resolution if needed to preserve ``international stability.''
As the U.S. military buildup for war exceeded 200,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region on Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld rejected the U.S. Army chief's estimate this week that several hundred thousand troops would be needed for a post-Saddam occupying force in Iraq.
``The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far off the mark,'' Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference.
The United States is seeking Turkish permission for a northern front against Iraq, but Turkey's governing party, facing strong public opposition to a war, delayed a vote to allow in more than 60,000 U.S. soldiers. Justice and Development Party leaders called for parliament to take up the issue on Saturday.
Inside Iraq, Saddam Hussein was moving some of his best-trained forces into new positions, Bush administration officials said.
Diplomats privately described the atmosphere in the council as bitter and demoralizing, but many held out hope that a compromise could be reached among the council's five major powers. The United States and Britain are pushing a resolution that would open the door for war, while Russia, China and France are calling for continued weapons inspections and a diplomatic end to the crisis.
While the U.S. proposal seems to be picking up some new support, Washington is still shy of the nine votes it needs to get the resolution adopted. Some council members said they could support the U.S. plan if it was open to negotiation.
A senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, hinted there may be some room wiggle room but not on substance.
``Its difficult to visualize many, if any changes to it but obviously if people have suggestions to make that preserve the integrity, the intent and purpose of that resolution ... I'm sure we'd be pleased to consider them,'' the diplomat said.
Much of the debate will depend on whether Iraq begins destroying its Al Samoud 2 missiles on Saturday, as Blix has ordered.
In a letter to Blix on Thursday, Iraq agreed ``in principle'' to destroy the missiles, which were found to have a range exceeding the 93-mile limit set by the Security Council at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But it wasn't immediately clear whether Iraq's letter, obtained by the Associated Press, constituted an unconditional acceptance and whether Iraq would meet the Saturday deadline.
Iraq asked Blix to dispatch a technical team to discuss the ``framework and timetable'' for carrying out the order, but Blix's deputy was already in Baghdad to oversee the destruction.
Iraq maintains some of the missiles overshot the limit because they were tested without warheads or guidance systems. In the letter, Iraq said it believes the decision to destroy the missiles was ``unjust,'' and politically motivated.
Blix told reporters earlier this week that the missile issue would be a key test of Iraq's cooperation with a U.N. order to disarm.
British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, trying to bolster the case against Iraq, told the council Thursday that fresh British intelligence indicated Iraq was producing anthrax, sarin and other biological and chemical agents. He said missiles were being hidden and scientists were being threatened to keep quiet.
Blix will appear before the council next week to discuss the findings in his 17-page report which details the work of his staff in Iraq over the past three months.
In a key section of the report, a draft copy of which was obtained by AP, Blix says Saddam could have made greater efforts ``to find remaining proscribed items or credible evidence showing the absence of such items.''
While Blix noted some recent Iraqi cooperation, he lamented in his report: ``It is hard to understand why a number of the measures which are now being taken could not have been initiated earlier.''
He stressed that Iraq's cooperation ``must be immediate, unconditional and active,'' warning that without such cooperation verifying the country's disarmament ``will be problematic.'' He made clear he was not satisfied with the level of cooperation.
Nonetheless, he noted in a recent interview that inspections resumed only in November after a four-year break and asked: ``Is it the right time to close the door?''
The U.S. draft resolution authorizing war was presented earlier this week by the United States, Britain and Spain.
There was some evidence that support for the resolution was gaining ground, including signals that Mexico and Pakistan were moving toward the U.S. position.
Pakistan has not revealed whether it would support the U.S. resolution, although Pakistani diplomats said privately that the Muslim country would likely abstain. There's almost no possibility that Pakistan would vote against the United States, and some within President Pervez Musharraf's administration say Islamabad is considering voting with Washington.