U.S. and France near accord on Iraq resolution

Tough arms inspections, implicit threat of force

`Americans have moved a bit'

Quick U.N. adoption seen

attack would be put off

October 29, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite heated rhetoric on both sides, the United States and France moved closer to agreement yesterday on a United Nations Security Council resolution that would send weapons inspectors back into Iraq while holding out the implicit threat of force to punish Iraqi obstruction, diplomats said.

A resolution could be adopted with broad support in the Security Council this week, the diplomats said, paving the way for more rigorous weapons inspections than occurred in the past and putting off indefinitely a U.S.-led military attack on Saddam Hussein's regime.

"The Americans have moved a little bit," a French diplomat said. "We want to believe that something could happen this week."

Stepping up pressure on the United Nations to disarm Iraq or lose its credibility, President Bush vowed anew yesterday that the United States would "lead a coalition and disarm Saddam Hussein" if the Security Council fails to act. Hussein, Bush chided, "has made the United Nations look foolish."

"It is coming down to the wire," warned White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The United Nations has debated this now long enough."

The Bush administration leaked word over the weekend of plans to call up reserve soldiers if war comes, underscoring its seriousness.

On Friday, France and Russia circulated draft resolutions intended to dilute Bush's freedom to attack Iraq.

In Paris yesterday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin repeated his country's opposition to U.S. wording in a draft resolution that France and Russia fear could be used by the United States and Britain to launch an attack against Iraq without any discussion in the Security Council.

"There can't be collective action and unilateral action at the same time. A choice has to be made," de Villepin told reporters. "We can't move with the United Nations a certain part of the way and at the same time imagine that a blank check could be given."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reported that differences had been narrowed in phone calls among Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and de Villepin and Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov.

"We think we're making progress," Boucher said. Differences were being "narrowed to a few key issues."

France indicated that it might agree to adopt U.S. language holding Iraq in "material breach" of U.N. mandates, at least in reference to past Iraqi violations. However, France wants to avoid applying the term to future obstruction of weapons inspectors, arguing that the Security Council could not anticipate how Iraq would react to the new inspections.

Still uncertain yesterday was whether Russia would fall in line even if France and the United States were to reach an agreement.

"You're hearing both Paris and Washington say, `We'll walk away.' That's partly tactical," said a Western diplomat in the Security Council. "Real negotiation is going on at a quieter level, narrowing in on wording that could work."

The United States and Britain drew support yesterday from the two top U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed el Baradei, both of whom underscored the need for inspections to be backed up by the threat of force.

"I think it helps us if Iraq is conscious that noncooperation will entail reactions by the council," Blix said.

"This is also not the first time the Security Council declares Iraq to be in material breach," el Baradei noted.

The threat that the United States would bypass the United Nations and launch military action on its own has been taken seriously in Baghdad and New York.

It prompted Iraq to agree to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors without conditions for the first time since 1998 and united most Security Council members behind a much more rigorous plan for U.N. inspectors to search for Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, which Iraq has denied having.

However, the council has taken Bush's threats so seriously that France, Russia, China and other members worried that Bush would launch unilateral military action even if they approve a resolution and the inspectors go back to Iraq.

That is why France and Russia have objected to the U.S. proposal to hold Iraq in "material breach" of U.N. mandates, words that they see as a "hidden trigger" for military action.

In case Iraq obstructs the arms inspectors, France, Russia and China want the Security Council to decide how serious the violations are and what punishment is required.

If U.N. weapons inspections resume, it would put off indefinitely the prospect of military action, which would then be launched only if Iraq tries to prevent inspectors from doing their job. Some Bush administration officials believe that Iraqi obstruction, and therefore U.S. military action, is inevitable.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has backed away from asserting the goal of toppling Hussein's regime, making Iraqi disarmament its top priority.

Bush's threat to "lead a coalition to disarm Saddam Hussein" drew applause in Denver yesterday. But the existence of such a coalition is in doubt. Apart from Britain, Australia and Israel, no nation has publicly supported Bush's stance, and the administration has sought to avoid embroiling Israel in the conflict.

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