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U.S. not saying Iraq in 'material breach'

But Saddam has 'missed his chance,' White House says

U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq
U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq

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Three weeks after U.N. weapons inspectors arrived in Iraq, CNN's Nic Robertson reports on their progress. (December 18)
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Iraqi opposition groups wrap up a four day meeting in London. CNN's Jim Bittermann reports (December 17)
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SPECIAL REPORT
•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models
WHAT'S NEXT?
• December 19: Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to deliver his initial assessment of the Iraqi weapons declaration to the U.N. Security Council.
• January 27: Blix to present report on inspections to Security Council, 60 days after inspections began.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Although the White House suggested Wednesday that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has missed his "last chance" to disarm, U.S. officials indicated the issue of whether Iraq was in "material breach" of the latest U.N. resolution was not "pressing" at this time.

The Bush administration plans to announce its verdict on Iraq's declaration of its weapons programs after hearing from U.N. inspectors at Thursday's U.N. Security Council meeting.

At least one top U.N. weapons inspector was expected to tell the council that Iraq's declaration on its nuclear weapons program leaves unanswered questions, a U.N. official told CNN.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was expected to say he will ask Iraq for more information, particularly whether it has attempted to acquire nuclear weapons materials in recent years as alleged by the United States and Britain. (Full story)

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States will present its case "and then work with our partners on the Security Council to determine the way to move forward."

"Our analysis of the Iraqi declaration to this point, almost two weeks into the process this weekend, shows problems with the declaration -- gaps, omissions. And all of this is troublesome," Powell said following a meeting Wednesday in London with European Union leaders.

"In my conversations with other permanent members of the Security Council, I sense they also see deficiencies in the declaration."

Pentagon prepares for troop buildup

Pentagon officials told CNN the United States may begin an obvious buildup of military forces in the Persian Gulf region in January. If the decision is made, the Pentagon would increase the number of troops in the region from 60,000 to 100,000.

The buildup would "tighten the noose" around Saddam, in the words of one Pentagon official.

Other administration officials said, however, the Bush national security team is not pushing for immediate military confrontation.

"The United States will continue to be deliberative in this manner. But this was Saddam Hussein's last chance," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

"I assure you, this president does not bluff. When he said that Saddam Hussein must disarm, that he wants Saddam Hussein to disarm so peace can be preserved. ... It is not a bluff," Fleischer said. "He hopes Saddam Hussein will do it still."

U.S. official: 'They failed the test'

Bush held a regularly scheduled meeting of the National Security Council on Wednesday and the lead item on the agenda was to settle on an official response to Iraq's declaration.

The president's national security team recommended the United States declare that Iraq has violated U.N. Security Council resolution 1441 by failing to fully account for its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

"They [the Iraqis] have failed the test, and we will make it plain that they have done so," said a senior official familiar with the process.

U.S. officials said they believe Iraq has failed to account for mustard gas shells and other chemical and biological weapons known to be in its stockpile, and has provided little or no information about developments the United States says have occurred in its nuclear weapons program over the past decade.

But senior officials said there was no recommendation the president use the term "material breach" -- the language in the U.N. resolution that is the trigger for possible "serious consequences," including military action -- at this time.

"That doesn't mean there are not strong views that they are in 'material breach,' but that is not the pressing issue at the moment," one official said.

Aides said Bush as of now has no plans in the short-term for a major speech on the Iraqi document, although that could change.

In an interview Wednesday on CNN's "Larry King Live," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not comment on what the president might say.

Rumsfeld did say that "I think it is pretty clear from the people who have had a chance to take a look at the documents that they are still trying to find things in them that they expected to be there that weren't there."

Bush was scheduled to meet Thursday with Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, a key U.S. ally.

Officials said Bush also was planning to outline some of his views on Iraq during a White House meeting Friday with the Quartet, the group composed of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that is trying to find a path toward a renewed Middle East peace process.

Officials said the measured response from the Bush administration is part of an effort to make a strong presentation to the United Nations on what the administration views as deficiencies in Iraq's declaration.

Officials said the administration's strategy was also designed to give weapons inspectors more time, and the United States will argue that deficiencies in Iraq's declaration should result in more aggressive inspections -- including use of a provision allowing inspectors to take Iraqi scientists out of the country for interviews.

The U.S. response also is a reflection of the political realities in the Security Council.

Other key members have said there is no justification for military action at this early stage in the inspections process and have argued it is the inspectors -- not the United States or any other Security Council member -- who carry the burden of deciding whether Iraq is in "material breach" of its obligations.

Other developments

• The U.S. military is tracking an Iraqi military operational deployment west of Baghdad that includes several hundred troops and armored equipment, Pentagon sources said. The United States believes the deployment is for defensive reasons. (Full story)

• British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a statement Wednesday an initial assessment of Iraq's declaration revealed "some obvious omissions" and that the declaration would "fool nobody." Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain would withhold a formal assessment of the Iraqi declaration until after Christmas. (Full story)

• Britain, also announced Wednesday that it would be sending six warships and a submarine to the Persian Gulf region on what it called "contingency provisions" for a possible war with Iraq.

• The Pentagon has approved a list of 400 to 500 members of Iraqi opposition groups who will be invited to undergo U.S. military training early next year, officials said. (Full story)



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