The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution giving Iraq one last chance to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction or face "serious consequences."
The resolution, drafted by the United States and co-sponsored by Britain, gave Baghdad a week to accept the terms and promise to comply.
An ebullient President Bush insisted that the core U.S. demands survived the intense two-month diplomacy even though the final version of the resolution is very different from the one he originally championed.
"I'm pleased with the resolution we put down," Bush said at a White House news conference. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have put it down."
Nonetheless, a flurry of eleventh-hour negotiations Thursday — including U.S. acceptance of a one-word change from "or" to "and" — watered down the already limited authority granted by the resolution.
With the change, the final version had the apparent support of 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council. Syria was the only member threatening to vote against the resolution.
All sides claimed victory, including the holdout French and Russians, who said they had curtailed U.S. warmongering and ensured that there will be a second stage of deliberations before going to any war.
But Bush's remarks Thursday illustrated just how far his position on Iraq has evolved over the last two months. Instead of demanding "regime change" and an immediate authorization to use force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the resolution launches a new inspections program and emphasizes eradication of weapons of mass destruction.
The resolution "is a tough new resolution," Bush said. "It talks about material breach and inspections and serious consequences if Saddam Hussein continues to defy the world and not disarm."
With the new resolution, the U.S. has committed itself to supporting the return of inspectors to verify disarmament, a process that with Iraq's full cooperation is open-ended. Once the resolution is passed, Iraq has a week to confirm it will comply with the tougher inspections. If it balks, military action could begin at any time, according to U.S. officials. Military planners have said they are looking at the winter months for any action.
Bush was personally involved in the final negotiations, speaking with French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
A day earlier, Chirac and Putin had discussed the possibility of abstaining from the vote unless "ambiguities" were removed from the resolution. They were supported by China, Mexico and Ireland, who pushed hard to change that single word in a passage on the sequence of events after inspections are completed and to remove what they saw as a loophole for the United States to act alone.
They said the original wording proposed in the U.S. draft — the third draft offered by the United States and Britain — would have let the United States determine on its own whether Iraq violated the terms of the resolution, which could then trigger an attack on Baghdad.
France, Russia and others interpret the word change to mean that only the weapons inspectors can report to the council that Iraq has not lived up to its obligations to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction, and only the Security Council can assess whether it is a breach serious enough to justify military action.
But in a feat of "creative ambiguity," the resolution is silent on whether the U.S. must wait for council authorization before taking action against Iraq, leaving Washington free to attack after the council meets.
The change of an "or" to an "and" tried to narrow the remaining ambiguities. Fearing that the U.S. would regard Iraq's slightest infraction as cause to attack, the simple word change satisfied skeptical delegates that the process would be guided by the council.
"The 'and' is very good," said Irish Ambassador Richard Ryan, who hadn't committed his country's support for the resolution until this week. "It keeps the hands of the council members as a whole on the steering wheel of the resolution in the future. It's of enormous significance."
The move sets the stage for potentially unanimous approval today. Syria has been expected to vote against the measure, but hinted that it might back the resolution if the vote could be delayed until Monday to allow the Syrians time to corral the support of Arab nations. The United States and Britain, co-sponsors of the resolution, declined to postpone the vote, gambling that Syria could be persuaded to come along if the other 14 members did, but shrugging off a possible "no" vote.
U.S. officials said Thursday's concession on the language showed that the United States is genuinely committed to a multilateral process.
"There's no 'automaticity' and this is a two-stage process, and in that regard we have met the principal concerns that have been expressed for the resolution," U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte said. "Whatever violation there is, or is judged to exist, will be dealt with in the council, and the council will have an opportunity to consider the matter before any other action is taken."
The compromise reassured diplomats who have suspected that despite engaging in negotiations at the United Nations, the U.S. will ultimately attack Iraq with or without the sanction of the Security Council. If the U.S. is sincere about involving the U.N., said Russia's ambassador, Sergei V. Lavrov, then the process has been valuable.
"We know the position of the United States," Lavrov said. "But if they say that this resolution is not about an extra authorization, [that] it's a genuine effort to have inspectors on the ground and to fulfill entirely the mandate, then it's quite important."
Bush administration officials declined to acknowledge that their position shifted considerably through the course of negotiations. But three months ago, when Vice President Dick Cheney first put Iraq on the administration's front burner, he seemed to dismiss the U.N. and the entire idea of using inspectors to monitor Hussein and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
"Saddam has perfected the game of cheat and retreat, and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception," Cheney said in August. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of this compliance with U.N. resolutions."
In his own speech to the United Nations a few weeks later, Bush barely mentioned weapons inspectors except to note that the inspections program had been unsuccessful.
"We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass murder even when inspectors were in his country," Bush said at the time. "Are we to assume that he stopped when they left?"
Baghdad has blocked the entry of teams seeking chemical and biological arms and materials designed to build nuclear weapons since December 1998, when the United States and Britain launched airstrikes to punish Hussein for failing to cooperate with the former U.N. disarmament agency.
Administration officials had argued that any military action ought to be launched before March, when hot weather in Iraq complicates military operations. U.S. officials say privately that based on Iraq's history with weapons inspections and its continued efforts to develop weapons, Baghdad will probably provide cause for the use of force sooner rather than later.
The Bush administration says the resolution does not restrict it from launching military action, which it maintains is authorized under previous Security Council resolutions on Iraq. But it does commit it to a second round of U.N. deliberations on the question of whether and how to use force to enforce Iraqi disarmament.
"It does not handcuff the United States," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack, "but it does provide an avenue for the Security Council to demonstrate its relevance."
Farley reported from the United Nations and Reynolds from Washington. Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.