- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Russia on Wednesday welcomed President George W. Bush's strong stand on international terrorism in his State of the Union speech, but said there was still no need to launch an attack on Iraq and stressed the work of U.N. arms inspectors should continue.

Observers, however, said there were some signs that Moscow's position on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hardening. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said, "We support the position that countering terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and other global threats demands the decisive combining of efforts of the entire international community."

But on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin warned Baghdad to cooperate fully with the U.N. weapons inspectors in their work, or Russia would re-evaluate its position on the use of more forceful measures against Iraq.

In a report by the Interfax news agency, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia would "do everything possible to prevent war in Iraq," but added that plans would be prepared for the evacuation of some 700 Russian citizens from the country should the threat of war appear imminent.

Ivanov did not give details, but his statement seemed to indicate that the Russians would not shrink from a military rescue operation should it become necessary.

Elsewhere, European reaction to the Bush speech ran along predictable lines reflecting existing divisions within the European Union on how to deal with the Iraqi regime.

Backers of Bush's stance against Iraq, such as the British government, used the president's speech to bolster support for a military strike against Iraq should Saddam fail to disarm his weapons of mass destruction.

Addressing the House of Commons in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he knew of links between the Iraqi leader and al Qaida network, but declined to give details.

Blair is to talk with Washington's two other close European allies — Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar — before heading to Camp David, Md., for weekend summit with Bush.

Blair will also attempt to rally French President Jacques Chirac to join the "coalition of the willing" at an Anglo-French summit in the resort town of Le Touquet.

News that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was to present new information on Iraqi weapons to the Security Council was greeted warmly across European capitals.

While describing an eventual war against Baghdad as a "catastrophe," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told reporters in Brussels: "I welcome the fact that Colin Powell is to share … intelligence with the United Nations."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder concurred.

"One can react to information that is made available,'' said Schroeder. ''I don't know what will be presented (the new evidence by President Bush)."

Powell is due to present his evidence to the United Nations — including intelligence reports of links between Saddam and al Qaida — on Feb. 5.

The German government, which is the staunchest European opponent of a second Gulf conflict, remained unimpressed by Bush's pledge to provide fresh proof of Iraqi skullduggery.

German Foreign Affairs Minister Joschka Fischer said: "It is important that any decisions on Iraq stay in the hands of the Security Council."

In an interview Wednesday morning on France's RTL radio, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said he "rejoiced" at Washington's promise to release new intelligence information.

"It's been several weeks that we've asked all those with special information…to give that information to the inspectors, so they can do their work under the best of conditions," said de Villepin, whose country presides over the UN Security Council this month.

French media have generally been quite critical of a possible war on Iraq. Ire against Washington was raised a notch following Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent dismissal of France and Germany as "old Europe."

But in a Wednesday article touching on Bush's State of the Union address, the newspaper Liberation suggested diplomatic opinion might change if Washington releases the information on Baghdad's alleged concealed weapons and ties to terrorism.

"If these proofs, which Bush vows once again he possesses, are effectively put on the table next week," the newspaper wrote, "the positions of countries which are skeptical today…may evolve."

Russia's Ivanov, in televised remarks, said, "We believe this information deserves the most thorough examination, and for this we have inspectors."

Europe has been resistant to the idea of attacking Iraq and as Solana rose to make a statement on the issue to European Parliament, dozens of MEPs held up placards stating "No War" and "No War for Oil."

"Some say that diplomacy is nave and weak," Solana said. "Much better, say the hawks, to use force as quickly and decisively as possible, since only force will achieve results. I say that diplomacy must not just be the instrument of first resort but at the center of our efforts."

EU Foreign Policy Commissioner Chris Patten echoed those sentiments.

"Any sensible person should want this crisis to be ended peacefully if it is humanly possible to do so," he said.

However, the former Hong Kong governor warned the Iraqi regime that the international community's patience was wearing thin.

"Let us not forget that at the heart of this crisis is how Saddam Hussein treats the rest of the world, not how the rest of the world treats Saddam Hussein."

He added: "If the inspectors make it clear that this is mission impossible we cannot avoid the consequences. The alternative would be the sort of humiliation that would make it more difficult to assert the authority of the U.N. in future cases."


(Elizabeth Bryant in Paris, Gareth Harding in Brussels, and Anthony Louis in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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