Chirac resists Blair on war against Iraq

But door open for France to shift gears, back action

February 05, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair failed yesterday to persuade French President Jacques Chirac to support a United Nations resolution authorizing war with Iraq. Chirac made clear, however, that he might change his mind if he is convinced that Iraq is stockpiling or producing weapons of mass destruction.

The two leaders, whose relationship has been frosty at best, sought to stress their agreement on the need to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But Chirac, appearing at a news conference with Blair in the French resort of Le Touquet on the English Channel, declined to promise support for a resolution authorizing war and refused to rule out vetoing such a measure.

Instead, Chirac said inspectors should be given more time to complete their duties while the council considers their findings.

"In the Middle East -- in that region, above all others -- we don't need any more wars," Chirac said, standing alongside Blair. "Having said that, I repeat that we've adopted a strategy of using inspectors. We have to have confidence in the inspectors and give them the amount of time they need to complete their work."

But, Chirac added, whether France will support a resolution, remain neutral or veto it outright will not be decided until "we see fit, at the appropriate time, based on the circumstances."

"There is still much to be done in the way of disarmament through peaceful means," he said. "Therefore, we'll only change our position at such time that we believe nothing further can be achieved that way."

The United States and Britain have led the call for swift military action against Iraq, arguing that U.N. resolutions permit such action. President Bush called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, yesterday, seeking his support for moving against Iraq. Russia has shown signs of going along.

Relations between the U.S. government and Chirac, though, have been soured since he joined German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in opposing an attack on Iraq, leading Donald H. Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense, to refer to the countries as "old Europe."

Chirac addressed those remarks yesterday. "I would simply say that when there are important, grave issues at stake, it is very important to stand by one's principals but also to respect the principals of others," he said. "So don't expect me to get into an argument with anyone across the Atlantic."

Chirac said last month that he favored giving the U.N. inspectors several more months to search Iraq for signs of weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is scheduled to present evidence today to the U.N. Security Council that Iraq has hidden weapons of mass destruction, is seeking to develop more and has been aggressively deceiving inspectors. Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, are scheduled to issue another report about the inspectors' work Feb. 14.

Evidence from Powell and the inspectors will be assessed by France, said Chirac, who left himself room to join the United States, Britain and other countries that have agreed to cut short the inspections route and instead go to war within weeks.

Blair seemed to try to further clear the way for Chirac to change his mind, saying, "There's a report coming out Feb. 14, and I think we should take account of that very carefully."

Dana Allin, senior fellow for trans-Atlantic affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Chirac may have miscalculated last month when France joined Germany in publicly opposing the Bush administration's stance that military action may be warranted in weeks rather than months. But, Allin said, Chirac may be recognizing his mistake and looking for a way to reverse himself.

"Given the political circumstances -- that there's a war train moving that he can't stop -- it makes a lot of political sense for France to come on board," he said. "If there has to be a war, France would clearly rather see it happen with the United Nations' backing than without it."

Tensions between Blair and Chirac have been particularly tense since the summer, when a bitter disagreement erupted over agriculture policy. Yesterday's summit -- an annual event to discuss interests common to the countries -- had been rescheduled after an angry Chirac canceled the original date in December because he felt slighted by Blair at a European Union meeting in Brussels, Belgium.

More recently, Chirac angered Blair by inviting Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe to a human rights summit in Paris scheduled for Feb. 19, a day after the expiration of European Union sanctions that ban his travel in Europe. Blair wants the ban extended. And last week Blair joined seven other European leaders in taking a public swipe at France and Germany by issuing a statement of support for the United States.

Blair called Chirac on Monday to discuss Iraq, and both leaders said they spoke yesterday about how to proceed. The prime minister has said he strongly prefers that the United Nations pass a second resolution, but he has also said he is prepared to go to war without one.

Chirac said the two leaders have learned to disagree "in a friendly way," but they are largely in agreement on the most important issues facing both countries, including what to do about Iraq.

"First and foremost, we have two convictions that are fundamental and that are shared," he said. "The first is that we have to disarm Iraq. The second conviction we share is that this has to be undertaken within the Security Council of the United Nations. That is fundamental. Regarding that, we are entirely in agreement. From there on, we may have differences of opinion. ... But we are not as far apart as some would think."

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