Bush asks leaders to hear case against Iraq

China, France, Russia oppose military action

September 07, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The leaders of Russia, China and France agreed yesterday to listen to President Bush's case against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but all remained steadfastly opposed to military action.

During back-to-back telephone calls yesterday, Bush stressed to his counterparts "that Saddam Hussein was a threat, and that we need to work together to make the world peaceful," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Bush also asked the leaders to receive high-level U.S. officials to outline the administration's position against Iraq.

The White House said all three leaders agreed to receive the president's emissaries, and administration officials said teams from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council would visit Moscow, Beijing and Paris in early October.

But in their phone conversations, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and French President Jacques Chirac reaffirmed their opposition to U.S. military action. Chinese officials said almost nothing about President Jiang Zemin's call from Bush.

"The president heard messages of openness, a willingness to listen," Fleischer said. "But it is fair to say that each of these three leaders has various thoughts of their own."

Chirac reiterated to Bush that any military action against Baghdad must be decided at the United Nations.

"If Iraq continues to refuse to allow weapons inspectors to return, then it is up to the Security Council to take appropriate measures," spokeswoman Catherine Colonna quoted Chirac as saying. "That will be the time to debate these measures."

A two-sentence report by China's official Xinhua News Agency said only that Jiang and Bush discussed "international and regional affairs" and U.S.-Chinese relations. Early this week, China welcomed Baghdad's foreign minister to Beijing to reaffirm their countries' "extremely friendly ties."

Russia, France and China hold three of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, and could veto any resolution calling for action against Hussein. The United States and Britain, Washington's closest ally in its fight against terrorism, hold the other two seats.

Of the three leaders, Bush may have held particular hope for a more favorable response from Putin.

It was Putin, after all, who made a startling break with the legacy of the Cold War last year by endorsing the United States' attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. And Bush and Putin like to say they have struck up a warm personal relationship at recent summits.

But Putin, who also talked to British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday, remains adamantly opposed to the use of force.

Russia, with its close diplomatic and economic ties to Baghdad, could prove most persuasive with other nations if it chooses to support Bush's argument - that Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is an urgent threat.

Putin, however, told Blair that there was "a real potential" for a political solution to the Iraq crisis, according to a statement from the Kremlin. And he "expressed strong doubt" about using military muscle to resolve it, the news service Itar-Tass reported.

"We believe a policy of diplomatic steps and decisions might allow us to find a long-term settlement of the situation around Iraq, which would meet the interests of regional stability," Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov told reporters.

Bush plans to make his case against Hussein to the United Nations on Thursday. Some foreign policy analysts assume that the White House will try to persuade the Security Council to adopt a resolution, calling on Iraq to admit weapons inspectors by a certain date or risk military action.

The White House has only "a very insignificant chance" of getting Putin to change his mind, says Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of Russia's Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies. "I don't see much possibility of bridging the gaps."

Bush has termed Iraq, Iran and North Korea - all accused of seeking weapons of mass destruction - an "axis of evil." But the Kremlin views these countries, especially Iraq, as potential business partners and customers.

Russia's leaders have long called for the resumption of arms inspections in Iraq, but they want them coupled with promises of eased sanctions - not threats of military action.

The Kremlin had already signaled its opposition to a military strike on Monday. After meeting with Iraq's foreign minister, Ivanov, the foreign minister, said that an attack on Iraq would "undermine the situation in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East."

Politically, Putin would have a difficult time giving his blessing to expanding the war on terrorism. Many Russians think that Washington has been a demanding and inattentive ally during the past year.

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