- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (UPI) — France's strong opposition to possible U.S.-led military action against Iraq will not affect long-term American relations with France, "a country that will always be an ally of the United States," a White House official said Thursday.

France's ultimate position on forcible disarmament of Saddam Hussein was unknown, but the president would respect its decision no matter what it may be, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told a news briefing.

"France remains an ally of the United States. France will always be an ally of the United States," he said.

" … It's conceivable that at the end of the day, when Europe answers the call (to action), France won't be on the line. That's a distinct possibility. (But) no matter what decision the French make, the president will respect France, will respect France's leaders."

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said Monday his government believed the presence of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq was keeping Baghdad from pursuing weapons of mass destruction, negating the need for military force.

France, which has veto power on the U.N. Security Council and which played an important role in the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War, would do everything it could to block a U.S.-led military expedition, Villepin said.

That threat came to fruition Wednesday when France, together with Germany, joined with Luxembourg and Belgium to block NATO from deciding on a U.S. request for NATO assistance if war to disarm Iraq became necessary.

French President Jacques Chirac underlined Villepin's statement, saying "Any decision belongs to the Security Council and the Security Council alone, which will express itself after hearing the report of the inspectors."

Fleischer's comments highlight the importance Washington places on its relationship with continental Western Europe's two largest countries, France and Germany.

The spokesman noted respect for sovereignty had been and continues to be a cornerstone of a long relationship.

"That 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 period began," he said.

Relations between Washington and Berlin have been strained for months, ever since Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder used opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq to help power his re-election bid.

Although not as warm as it once was, the relationship continues because of mutual interests and history.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented earlier this week that Germany and France were "Old Europe," a contrast with former Warsaw Pact countries, which had joined NATO and were integrating with the West.

The White House Thursday also alluded to the new reality of Europe.

"The president believes that NATO is changing, that the European Union is changing, that Europe is indeed changing," Fleischer said. "The presence of these new freedom-loving countries of Eastern Europe that have emerged from the cloak of totalitarianism is powerful."

The White House said Thursday the new East European members of NATO were among the countries ready to stand with the United States if Washington decided a military campaign to disarm Saddam Hussein was necessary.

But while Europe's political landscape was changing, old ties remain important.

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