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Bush, Blair, Aznar to meet in Azores

Bush, Blair, Aznar to meet in Azores

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a last-minute stab at diplomacy, President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar will search for a way to win U.N. backing for using force to disarm Iraq when they confer Sunday at a hurriedly arranged meeting on an Azores island in the mid-Atlantic.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described the talks as "an effort to pursue every last bit of diplomacy" in the face of fading hopes for approval of a U.N. war resolution. Bush will depart for the Azores Sunday morning. It will be a one-day trip, said Fleischer, who said U.S. officials still hope to pass a resolution demanding that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein be disarmed.

"We are still pursuing the vote next week," the spokesman said.

The leaders also are likely to discuss plans for Iraq in any scenario in which Saddam is deposed.

Billing it as a diplomatic summit, senior administration officials earlier said the leaders will not discuss battlefield tactics and detailed military strategies. These officials, discussing the situation on grounds of anonymity, had acknowledged that Bush was prepared to drop his bid for a U.N. resolution and fight Iraq without U.N. consent.

Bush has said that without the United Nations, he would form a "coalition of the willing," which U.S. officials say would include Britain and Spain.

As U.N. diplomats predicted failure for Bush's resolution, the president gave aides the go-ahead for the U.S.-Britain-Spain summit. Blair quickly, U.S. officials said, and Aznar signed on Friday morning.

The Azores Islands, which belong to Portugal, are a traditional mid-Atlantic refueling stop. Portugal is among the countries which have offered Bush logistical support in any war in Iraq, and it granted U.S. permission to use Lajes Field air base in the island chain.

News of the meeting first surfaced Thursday morning, but officials said planning had stopped, only to confirm hours later that talks had resumed amid tense discussions at the United Nations.

The administration, which had wanted to introduce a new resolution authorizing force in the Security Council on Friday, will continue "working hard to see if we can take this to a vote," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. But he pointedly set a time frame that suggested the diplomatic effort would not extend beyond the weekend.

A senior administration official told The Associated Press the United States was waiting for Mexico and Chile to decide. In a constantly shifting lineup, the two Latin American countries could ensure the nine votes required for council approval -- provided there was no veto, which both France and Russia have said they would cast.

France's veto threat was being taken seriously, and the administration may decide not to give France the chance by withdrawing the resolution, the senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Bush was ready to drop the resolution, several aides said, if Blair didn't want it put to a vote.

Whatever the decision, the United States will declare that Iraq has missed its final opportunity to disarm, the official said.

On the verge of an embarrassing diplomatic defeat, the administration backpedaled from its statements that it was time for the 15 members of the council to stand up and be counted.

At a news conference last week, Bush said he was prepared for a vote, win or lose. "No matter what the whip count is, we're calling for the vote. We want to see people stand up and say what their opinion is about Saddam Hussein and the utility of the United Nations," the president said.

Aides said the president has pushed for a U.N. vote thus far out of respect for Blair, whose support of Bush has drawn severe criticism in Britain.

The Security Council vote wasn't Bush's only problem. The president sent a letter to incoming Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vice President Dick Cheney called the leader in hopes of securing permission to invade Iraq through Turkey or to use Turkish airspace for an attack.

However, senior administration officials told The New York Times that Turkey dismissed the latest appeals. One official familiar with the conversation between Cheney and Erdogan said "the message was clear that by the time Turkey got its act together, it would be too late to do us any good."

Within hours, Navy ships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles were told to move out of the Mediterranean and into the Red Sea. There are more than 225,000 U.S. troops in the region.

Powell consulted several times Thursday with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, whose government jointly sponsored the new resolution with the United States.

Powell said for the first time Thursday that the resolution might be withdrawn. "We are working hard to see if we can take this to a vote ... but we haven't excluded any of the other obvious options that are out there," he told a House Appropriations subcommittee.

He said the options under consideration included "to go for a vote and not to go for a vote."

Britain proffered a compromise, a series of tests or "benchmarks" to measure Iraq's sincerity about disarming. But France opposed the move and Iraq exulted it could end the political career of the British prime minister.

Bush and Blair obviously "have lost the round before it starts while we, along with well-intentioned powers in the world, have won it," the popular daily Babil, owned by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's son, Odai, said in a front-page editorial.

Suggesting a decision on the resolution was close at hand, Powell told the subcommittee "all the options that you can imagine are before us and we'll be examining them today, tomorrow and into the weekend."

But he did not draw back from threatening Iraq with war. "The day of reckoning is fast-approaching," Powell said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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