Bush pushes for action against Iraq 'within weeks'

President Bush made clear last night that he would not allow a second UN resolution to delay a decision on war with Iraq. A new resolution would be welcome, he said, but only "if it is yet another signal we are intent on disarming Saddam Hussein".

Privately officials suggested military action could begin within six weeks, a timetable that would allow the Pentagon to complete troop deployments.

Mr Bush was speaking after a two-hour meeting with Tony Blair at the White House as the thorny question of a second UN resolution threatened to cause a rift in the previously solid London-Washington alliance.

The President told a news conference that the momentum for war should not be slowed by a second resolution.

"Any attempt to drag this process on for months will be resisted by the United States," he said, stressing that "this issue will come to a head in a matter of weeks, not months".

Mr Blair said today that UN would sanction war with Iraq within weeks if Saddam Hussein did not disarm.

The Prime Minister said that sceptics such as France and Germany were expressing "people's natural reluctance to want to go to war".

However, when the time came to make a decision on whether Iraq had complied with UN demands to disarm, that could be overcome, he suggested.

Failing to pass a second resolution, if the UN inspectors continued to say Saddam was not co-operating, would "breach the understanding that gave rise to the first resolution".

"It is really a question of whether people believe Saddam is likely to comply or not. Personally I think it is frankly obvious he is not," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The President after last night's meeting: "I have constantly said, and the Prime Minister has constantly, said this matter will come to a head in a matter of weeks, not months."

Mr Blair said that did not mean Mr Bush would disregard the UN. "He has said that he welcomed the prospect of a second resolution," the Prime Minister told Today.

"What he is anxious to ensure, and what I am anxious to ensure, is that the whole debate about a second resolution doesn't just become a means of putting this thing off for months and months and months.

"That is not actually what I believe will happen," he said.

President Bush again accused President Saddam of aiding and protecting terrorists, including al-Qa'ida. But British officials have shown scepticism about the evidence that Colin Powell, the Sectreary of State, will present to the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

Officials in London have never believed that the Iraqi government was involved in the September 11 attacks, although they say there is evidence of some links between Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

Mr Blair's insistence on taking the UN route contrasts with the official White House view that a second resolution is "desirable, not mandatory".

Before the two leaders met at the White House – the venue was switched from the presidential retreat at Camp David because of bad weather – Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, warned that Washington was ready to go ahead regardless.

"Our purpose is not to follow process but to end the terrible threat," said Mr Cheney, a leading hawk on Iraq. "Whatever action is required, we will defend the freedom and security of the American people."

Mr Blair's conversation is believed to have focussed on what a second UN resolution would say. US officials have indicated Washington would only agree if it contained a specific deadline for inspectors. Washington will not tolerate the weeks of wrangling that preceded resolution 1441.

The signs are that if President Saddam has not demonstrably disarmed when the next report is filed, Mr Bush is unlikely to accept anymore inspections. The US has said all along that Iraq had to come clean voluntarily, not for the inspectors to be led on a game of hide-and-seek. "There is still an opportunity for war to be avoided, but it will not be avoided by us looking away," General Powell said yesterday.

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