- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

France's emphatic threat to veto any U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq has poisoned the atmosphere in the Security Council and made it extremely difficult for the United States and its allies to win support from the undecided council members, U.S. and foreign diplomats said yesterday.
What has brought the efforts of the United States, Britain and Spain to a standstill is not aggressive lobbying by France against their new draft resolution, but the intricate position in which Paris' vow has put the six undecided countries. It is very hard for their representatives on the council to sell to their capitals the idea of backing a document whose failure is guaranteed even before it has been formally presented, diplomats said.
"The middle six don't want to be caught in the middle of this," a diplomat from one of the three sponsoring nations said in reference to Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan. "The fact that France has threatened a veto no matter what, and that it rejected the British proposal even before Iraq did, has weakened our arguments to the undecided in favor of the resolution."
Britain proposed on Wednesday that a list of six demands be attached to the new measure, but the Bush administration refrained from backing the idea. Although generally uncomfortable with benchmarks, the administration did not oppose them either, saying that its support depended on how helpful they are in bringing other council members on board. The reaction to the list among the middle six, however, was mostly negative.
"The French position has made war more likely, by letting Saddam Hussein off the hook," one U.S. official said. The only way to make Saddam disarm is to show a united front and determination to use force, he added.
"It seems France's objective is to contain the United States in a box to the benefit of its own image," the official said.
In an attempt to tone down his rhetoric of recent days, French President Jacques Chirac called British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday to seek a compromise. A spokeswoman for Mr. Chirac said France was ready to discuss suspending U.N. weapons inspections before the end of the 120-day period Paris has favored until now.
"But we cannot change position because it is a position of legitimacy," French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in Athens. "We are saying the inspections must go on, and they are going on."
Mrs. Alliot-Marie will be traveling to the Persian Gulf this weekend to convey a message of support from Mr. Chirac to the countries of the region. She will visit the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Security Council diplomats said that even though France has been trying to influence a number of the undecided countries in the past few days, its lobbying efforts have not been nearly as intense as those of the United States, Britain and Spain.
Earlier this week, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin visited the three African countries on the council Angola, Cameroon and Guinea but failed to secure their votes. In fact, some U.N. diplomats believe Angola and Cameroon have been leaning toward the U.S. position for several days, although the deep divisions in the council have made them less certain.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between Washington and Paris, Chile yesterday proposed giving Saddam a three-week deadline to disarm. Earlier in the week, other undecided members suggested 45 days. The White House dismissed both ideas.
Only Bulgaria supports the U.S.-British-Spanish draft, which needs at least nine votes to pass, while France, Russia, China, Germany and Syria oppose it. Only France, however, has used the word "veto" to describe how it would vote.
Although they were surprised by the French public and categorical threat even before a vote has been called for, current and former U.S. officials said the two countries have disagreed on Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Because of Paris's trade relations with Baghdad, France has always defended Saddam when it comes to sanctions and threat of force, they said.
"There is no question that France was the most difficult of U.N. members," former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said about the four years she was ambassador to the United Nations during President Clinton's first term in office.
"It's that kind of overlaying suspicion that raises questions, because in many ways, you were the lawyers for Saddam," she told the French ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, during a debate with him at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday night.
Responding to Mrs. Albright's assertion that French policy was influenced by trade relations with Iraq, Mr. Levitte said that his country is only the 13th-ranked trading partner of Baghdad, and that it buys only 8 percent of Iraqi oil, versus the 56 percent that goes to the United States.
While the ambassador insisted that France was not against the use of force in principle, he said Iraq can be disarmed with Saddam remaining in power.
"Let's disarm Iraq despite what Saddam is and will remain," he said. "It's possible because of past experience."
President Bush, however, has said that the diplomatic window before going to war will close in days.
Foreign leaders whose nations do not sit on the Security Council yesterday added to the expression of frustration coming from Washington, London and Madrid.
"I regret to say that the French are playing a spoiling role. They don't appear to me to be trying to find a solution," Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in a television interview. "They appear to be trying to advance France's prestige in the international community vis-a-vis the United States."
In Tokyo, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said the French position is "regrettable" and that "France should also try to make efforts to find a point of compromise, not just using a veto."

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