Among those at the meeting were Sandy Berger, National Security Adviser, and William Cohen, Secretary of Defense. Both had just returned from visits to Europe and to countries in the Gulf region, where they sought support for military steps by the United States.
While some American officials said military action could come within days, it was stressed that the final decision to strike at Iraq was not expected last night.
US officials said they wanted to end the stand-off by using diplomatic pressure, although they admit that an attack on military targets is being considered, perhaps starting with cruise missiles.
"Our position is clear," one official said. "We want Iraq to comply with the memorandum of understanding signed with Secretary-General Annan in February and with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions."
The latest crisis began a week ago when the Iraqi leader, President Saddam Hussein, suspended co-operation with the United Nations inspectors. For seven years they have been entrusted with the task of identifying and destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as well as the means to produce them. A handful of inspectors left the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, at the weekend.
There are indications that the US may abandon the policy of UN inspections and resort to a punitive stance. This would essentially end the work of Unscom, the UN agency that has been responsible for the weapons inspections since the end of 1991.
The dilemma for Bill Clinton is acute. With nothing to suggest that Saddam Hussein will back down and scant hope that the Unscom inspections can become useful again, the credibility of the UN and the US is on the line. Military intervention, however, which could begin with cruise missile strikes, could anger much of the Arab world and divide the Security Council.
Last February, when the US last seemed on the brink of attacking Baghdad, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan,secured a memorandum of understanding from President Saddam that was meant to ensure free movement for inspectors inside Iraq.
Saddam is demanding the suspension of sanctions against Iraq that have been in place since his invasion and brief occupation of Kuwait.
The Security Council is still not satisfied that all weapons of mass destruction, notably biological and chemical arms, have been purged from Iraq - the condition laid down in UN resolutions for the sanctions to be lifted.
Most Arab governments still favour a diplomatic resolution. However, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, publicly blamed Iraq for the crisis yesterday. "The responsibility in this issue falls completely with the Iraqi leadership," he said in Cairo. He suggested that Baghdad should "go back on its decision" [on non-co-operation].
Baghdad, which hosted a delegation of British and Irish MPs yesterday, remains defiant. Tariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister, said after meeting the politicians that "Iraq has done all that was asked of it". The delegation included the MP Tam Dalyell and the former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds.
Britain, which has been the loudest supporter of the US on Iraqi policy, was also engaged yesterday in building support for possible military strikes in the Gulf region. George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, was due to hold talks in Kuwait.
Kofi Annan appealed to Baghdad to back down. "I ask the Iraqi government urgently to respond positively to the demand by the Security Council," he said. "It is in the interest of the Iraqi peoples."Reuse content