- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (UPI) — France and Germany's strong opposition to possible U.S. military action to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction does not reflect the thinking of many European countries and would not deter Washington from leading a "robust coalition of the willing" into battle if necessary, the United States said Thursday.

Neither, however, would it poison future relations between the United States and its two most important Western allies on the European continent.

"I don't think we'll have to worry about going it alone," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday. "If it comes to (military action) we'll be joined by many nations. Many nations have already expressed a willingness to serve in a coalition of the willing.

The United States, he added, was prepared to act even without a further resolution from the U.N. Security Council if need be to protect U.S. and world security interests

Meanwhile, sources at the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were meeting privately with the Senate late Thursday behind closed doors. The subject of the meeting, which was not announced, was not disclosed. Iraq was likely.

White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer, noting some allied opposition to possible military action, said in Thursday's briefing "the president respects the rights of sovereign nations to make their own decisions."

"This is one of the things that has kept the great alliance of NATO and the European Union and America's strong relations with Europe as strong as it has been through the ups and downs of 50 years, since the postwar (World War II) period began."

The statement, reaffirming the importance Washington places on relations with Berlin and Paris, came as the United States stepped up the tempo of public diplomacy in the face of growing unease or outright opposition to a new war in the Gulf.

Next week U.N. weapons inspectors, who returned to Iraq two months ago after a four-year hiatus, were to deliver an important report on their findings and operations to the U.N. Security Council, an action many believe will mark the beginning of final U.S. preparations for war.

The U.S. government has been reluctant to name its allies in confronting Iraq, saying it was best for those governments to make the announcements themselves, but the White House did say Britain, Australia, Italy, Spain, East European members of NATO and "many more" had indicated support for the United States position that Iraq was a present and clear threat that must be dealt with sooner rather than later.

The United States and Britain charge Iraq, in violation of U.N. mandates put in place following the 1991 Gulf War, possesses illegal weapons of mass destruction, mainly chemical and biological weapons, which U.N. inspectors said they had in the late 1990s.

They also assert that intelligence indicates Iraq has also attempted to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Iraq's pattern of defiance and deception, aggression toward its neighbors, use of WMD in the past and potential as a WMD conduit to terrorists made Iraq a threat that could not be ignored..

Dissent over action against Iraq centers on inspectors not finding hard, irrefutable evidence of weapons stockpiles or materials. Washington maintains that it is up to Iraq to prove it is or has disarmed, not for inspectors to prove it isn't or hasn't.

On Thursday, the White House spokesman said the term "inspectors" was a misnomer. The proper term should be "verifiers" since they are there to verify Iraq's claims.

Powell and the visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw Thursday indicated that any military action against Iraq was not dependent on inspectors finding a "smoking gun" there.

"Saddam Hussein has not explained where (the weapons) are. He has, yes, ensured that traffic inspectors allow UN inspectors' vehicles through on red. But that is not compliance," said Straw.

"Time is running out for him to comply fully with the terms of (the UN resolution) 1441." he added.

The U.S. and British position on the resolution, passed unanimously in November by the Security Council following hard lobbying by Washington, is that Iraq, by its behavior, is in material breach of previous international disarmament mandates; that any failure to comply fully, completely and honestly with new weapons inspections would constitute a new breach that could bring about "severe consequences."

President Bush, in challenging the United Nations in September to confront Iraq, did so with a congressional resolution authorizing unilateral U.S. military action. Fleischer said the president also made it clear the Security Council would "not handcuff " the United States.

China and Russia, two veto-powered members of the Security Council, are opposed to military action to disarm Iraq without a new Security Council resolution.

The White House, which has in recent days repeatedly hammered the theme that time for a peaceful resolution was running out, indicated Thursday that Washington was not necessarily ruling that option out despite the fact it would further delay the matter.

"I think it's premature to make any judgments about it," Fleischer said. "It is a possibility. The president has said repeatedly that he thinks it's very important to work in close contact with our allies.

"But the president has also made it clear that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, that the president will lead a coalition of the willing."

The British foreign secretary said Thursday Jan. 27, when U.N. inspectors are scheduled to present their report to the Security Council, was not "a deadline" but "an important moment at which the United Nation needs to signal the determination … of resolving this issue."

The United States and Britain wished to maintain their faith in the United Nations, "but there has to be reciprocal responsibility shown by the United Nations," he said

In other developments Thursday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Council for Foreign Relations that the only alternative to military action was complete co-operation from Iraq, which he said was not forthcoming.

America's allies had to understand that they were trying to persuade the wrong people: "I think one of the problems … is a well-intentioned belief that the key to preventing war is to persuade us that we mustn't act," he said. "And the key, in fact … is to persuade Saddam Hussein that he must act.

"So I would say whatever the intentions of our allies — and I believe they agree with us completely that he has these weapons — I would hope they'd put more effort into persuading Saddam Hussein than into persuading us."

U.S. officials Thursday portrayed France and Germany's opposition to the war as an honest difference of opinion between friends and allies and not representative of the thinking of a majority of European countries.

President George W. Bush understood the complexities facing the two nations, and if France and Germany did not participate in disarming Iraq of its suspected weapons of mass destruction if force became necessary, it would be their choice.

"This is difficult for many members of the Security Council, and they are approaching it reflecting the difficulty of it," White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "And the president is respectful of that; he understands it, and he will continue to lead, and it is their prerogative if they chose, to be on the sideline.

"It is entirely possible for good friends to stay on the sidelines; there will be many more good friends who'll heed the call if it comes down to it."

The comments follow remarks Wednesday by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who said France and Germany had a been "a problem." But he added they were "old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members."

French President Jacques Chirac, speaking at a ceremony Wednesday marking the 40th anniversary of the French-German friendship treaty, said the two nations were in agreement that the crisis with Iraq must be handled by the U.N. Security Council alone.

The statement followed earlier comments by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin that France would oppose any move toward military action, preferring instead for U.N. weapons inspectors to continue their work indefinitely.

The inspectors were preventing by their very presence Iraq further pursuing WMD programs, he argued.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, adamantly opposed to military action, repeated his pledge Wednesday to do all in his power to prevent a war.

The two nations' reservations had their first real impact Wednesday. NATO, which operates on consensus, put off a decision about how to aid the United States and its anti-Saddam coalition — especially NATO member Turkey that borders Iraq — at the urging of France and Germany, joined by Belgium.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson Thursday sought to play down the decision, saying "This is not some sort of bust up. It is a disagreement over timing, not (over) substance."

Fleischer stressed again that President Bush had not yet reached a decision on military action and was awaiting the Jan. 27 report.

"The president remains hopeful that this can be handled in a way that is peaceful and the United States and our allied nations will not have to resort to force," he said. "That would be the best result in the president's judgment.

"But the president has said this is entering a final phase and it is becoming increasingly clear that Saddam Hussein is entering the final phase having made the decision he will not disarm, that he will continue to deceive the inspectors in a way that is creating increasing tension between Iraq and the inspectors, and that he will enter the final phase with a lie.

"(But) let's see what the inspectors report. We'll evaluate what the report is, what it says and make any determination after," he said.

The United States will have over 130,000 troops in the Gulf near Iraq by the end of February, a fact which the White House underlines to Iraq the seriousness of the situation and the determination of the international community that Iraq disarm.

(With contributions from Pentagon Correspondent Pamela Hess and Anwar Iqbal in Washington)

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