- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell outlined the administration's evidence against Saddam Hussein at the U.N. Security Council Wednesday, France countered with what looked like a solid proposal for tightening and prolonging the weapons inspections — only nobody has called a proposal.

In his reply to Powell's array of evidence which the Bush administration hoped would convince the world that Saddam Hussein had concealed from the inspectors biological and chemical weapons French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin outlined procedures to strengthen the inspections and give them a new lease of life.

De Villepin's plan called for the number of inspectors to be increased to 300, and for more regional offices to be opened in Iraq. He proposed that a resident U.N. weapons representative should be appointed in Baghdad, reporting to inspection chief Hans Blix, and a system be set up for exchanging intelligence and delivering it to the inspectors in real time.

De Villepin even offered French Mirage surveillance planes to monitor the area.

A number of Security Council members, including German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, supported the French proposal, but observers said the Bush administration was not likely to find any idea acceptable that delayed action on getting Baghdad to disarm.

A French official in New York said later de Villepin wasn't making a proposal, but putting forward some "ideas" for tightening up the inspections regime.

U.N. Resolution 1441, which returned the weapons inspectors to Iraq and called on Saddam Hussein to make a full disclosure on his weapons of mass destruction, included no time limit. But the French plan implies that the weapons inspectors would be digging in for the long haul.

It reflects a familiar U.N. philosophy of moving in to calm a tense situation, or stop a regional conflict, and then staying there — sometimes more effectively than others.

President Bush and other members of the administration, however, have stressed that Iraq has weeks rather than months to make a full disclosure. French commentators said de Villepin's suggested changes are another example of the French government trying to maintain the initiative — but leaving the possibility to join the fray in the event of a war to disarm Baghdad.

Francois Heisbourg, a noted analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris said, "We're all going to pay a very high price for America's wish to have a war, here and now, on Iraq." But Heisbourg and other analysts believe France is keeping its options open — if only not to be left out in the cold in a post-Saddam scenario.

In a Thursday interview on French radio, de Villepin argued it was "too early" for a second U.N. resolution sanctioning military action, and that intensified U.N. inspections and greater cooperation by Baghdad should come first.

Nonetheless, de Villepin added, "we don't exclude any possibility. Including, of course, the recourse to force."

Barthelemy Courmont, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris said, "We're playing both sides. But it doesn't mean we're ready to fight. It just means we can't exclude any option."

France received a boost at Wednesday's Security Council meeting where 10 members out of the 15 called for the continuation of weapons inspections, despite Powell's elaborate 76-minute indictment of Saddam Hussein.

The French saw it as a vindication of their position, which had seen them pointedly excluded from an open letter of support for the United States signed by eight U.S. "allies" and published in leading newspapers in the United States and in Europe.

"France is not isolated. Russia and China more or less share its position," says Jean Petaux, a professor at the University of Political Studies in Bordeaux. "But when France says its not excluding any hypothesis, obviously that means a military option is possible."

A further hint of this came Tuesday when the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was dispatched to Mediterranean waters for what the government called a three-week mission as a routine training exercise. Some news reports suggested otherwise.

"At the hour of truth, France will not shy away (from war)," commented an editorial in Le Parisien with a hint of irony Thursday. "All that remains for Chirac … is to re-shape tomorrow a public opinion that doesn't want war, doesn't see the motives, and isn't at all impressed by Powell, his photos and his cassettes."

That, Heisbourg says, will be the major challenge. "There has been absolutely no preparation of public opinion," he says. "Political leadership and the public are pretty much dead set against a war here and now."

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(Lisa Bryant reported from Paris, and Roland Flamini from the United Nations)

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