The US said yesterday it doubted either Russia or China would veto a new UN Security Council resolution designed to pave the way for war on Iraq.
The comments, made by a senior US administration official speaking on condition of anonymity, seemed to improve prospects for the resolution, although questions remained over the nine council votes it needs to pass and a possible French veto.
Washington's main supporter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, faced potentially the biggest revolt yet within his ruling Labour Party in a parliamentary vote on his stance on Iraq expected later on yesterday.
Blair was hoping to head off the rebellion by presenting a motion which does not mention the possibility of war but asks instead for backing for the UN route to disarmament of Iraq.
He was betting that political and public opinion will rally round if a second resolution is passed by the 15-member Security Council, of which only four so far have pledged to vote for it.
The resolution circulated at the UN this week by the US, Britain and Spain says Baghdad has missed a "final opportunity" to disarm peacefully.
Washington and London have made clear they would like it passed in mid-March. Blair told the British parliament he thought the resolution would gain the required support.
Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei that countries which supported America in any future war would be legitimate targets for retaliation. Asked whether Iraq could strike Kuwait or Turkey, he said:
"War is war. If aggression is shown against Iraq, it can of course use any means to defend itself. I want to say only that whoever helps the Americans will be seen as their accomplice."
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Tuesday that if there was a war, "people who are in charge of fighting the war to kill US troops cannot assume that they will be safe ... of course including [President] Saddam Hussein".
The New York Times said US intelligence officials had identified more than 2,000 members of the Iraqi elite, with some to be captured as possible war criminals and others the US military would try to turn against the Iraqi leader.
Saddam rejected suggestions he may accept exile in excerpts from an interview with CBS television broadcast on Tuesday: "We will die in this country and we will maintain our honor, the honor that is required in front of our people."
The senior US official, speaking in Moscow, said he doubted China and Russia would use their vetoes despite their public stance that UN inspectors should be given more time.
"I don't think there is any question of a Chinese veto. The most likely result is that they'll abstain ... They are not going to stand in the way," he told reporters.
"I don't think there'll be a Russian veto either", he said, adding that Moscow might even vote for the new resolution.
"We're not there yet but we have got two weeks," he said, referring to the preferred US mid-March deadline for a vote.
One of the countries most concerned about retaliation from Iraq is Turkey, which Washington would like to use as a launchpad for a northern invasion of Iraq in the event of war.
Powell telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul to stress the urgency of deploying up to 62,000 US troops in Turkey, Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency reported.