WASHINGTON _ As more U.S. warplanes headed to the Persian Gulf, U.N. officials ordered some relief workers not to return to Baghdad while a hesitant Congress postponed a vote on a resolution supporting airstrikes on Iraq.
The Air Force dispatched six F-16 fighters, six B-52 bombers and a B-1 bomber to the Persian Gulf region Thursday to augment the fleet of American warplanes facing off with Iraq. Six more F-117 stealth fighter-bombers were heading for the region today.
Still preparing to go are 23 extra support aircraft, including an RC-135 electronic surveillance plane, two AWACS command and control planes, a Joint Stars ground-surveillance plane and several types of helicopters, tankers and other specialized support aircraft, according to the Pentagon.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the United States was close to the end of diplomatic efforts before turning to military options. "It could be weeks or days," he said.
In the face of a diplomatic impasse over Iraq's refusal to allow unfettered inspections in search of alleged chemical and biological weapons stocks, Congress put off for at least a week action on a resolution backing the potential use of force against Iraq.
Conceding he lacked the votes for quick approval, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said that if he had sought unanimous agreement to take up the measure Thursday, "We wouldn't get it."
The House also went home for a weeklong President's Day recess without considering a resolution on Iraq. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a floor speech, "This Congress is very committed to supporting the president of the United States."
But Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., sharply criticized the speaker for not introducing the measure.
"I am very concerned that we have not acted on a resolution of support already," Gephardt said. He asked that it be taken up as soon as Congress returns.
Some lawmakers of both parties are hesitant to sign on to the use of force because they fear the conflict could spin out of control, because some are hearing from constituents who oppose military action, and because they question whether the strikes will cause Iraq to yield.
"We have not yet heard an explanation of what the goals are," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "The question is, how does Saddam Hussein come out of whatever military force we use? I am very much concerned that he may come out a martyr. Certainly the lack of support for the United States raises questions about how the rest of the world views this issue."
In Moscow that lack of support was on display as Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev lectured Defense Secretary William Cohen on Thursday, describing America's stand as "rigid and uncompromising."
As Cohen's assistants looked on in stunned silence and Cohen himself calmly took notes, Sergeyev asked, "Does the uncompromising and tough stand over the situation in Iraq help to strengthen stability in the world? ... Is America ready for all the possible consequences?" Speaking through a translator, he continued, "Force can conquer all, but its victory is short-lived."
Later, Cohen described the 2 1/2-hour session as "direct and candid," and said it "came as no surprise to me."
"We continue to disagree on the method of achieving a shared goal _ full compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions," he said.
In Washington, meanwhile, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told members of Congress that the ultimate aim of the United States is to oust Saddam.
"Iraq would be better off without Saddam Hussein," she told the House International Affairs Committee, "and we look forward to working with a post-Saddam regime."
She did not offer a scenario for his removal, though she insisted it would not involve American combat troops.
At a separate House hearing, two former CIA chiefs who served under Clinton said air strikes alone would neither topple Saddam nor destroy his alleged stores of chemical or biological weapons.
"The problem with Iraq will not be solved by an air campaign," former CIA Director John Deutch said.
Deutch's predecessor, James Woolsey, criticized Clinton's "flaccid responses" to Iraqi provocations and advocated a combination of airstrikes, support for Iraqi opposition groups and imposition of a countrywide no-fly zone over Iraq.
"Saddam has doubtless concluded that, almost no matter what he does, he will only have to endure air strikes for a limited period of time and that he can use those to rally support, especially in the Arab world," Woolsey said. Nor is Iraq at risk of being caught by surprise, he said. "If airstrikes occur in the next few weeks, this may be the most telegraphed punch in military history."