- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

A senior French government official said yesterday that France considers al Qaeda and its worldwide terror network a more immediate and urgent threat than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"We are less preoccupied than you are in the U.S. [with Iraq]. Our priorities are elsewhere," said the official, who has intimate knowledge of the inner workings of his government and its U.N. diplomacy. "Iraq in our view is a dangerous country, no doubt, but in a more limited way."
The official, who spoke to a large group of U.S. officials, diplomats, reporters and foreign policy specialists at Washington's Willard hotel, asked that he not be identified.
He said France had endured terrorism 40 years ago, during the Algerian civil war, and more recently as French citizens were killed in Pakistan and a French tanker was attacked in the Persian Gulf.
"We consider that the main threat for Europe may be elsewhere. Maybe in terror. Maybe in al Qaeda," he said. "Never has France been in such great danger since the Algerian war 40 years ago."
Speaking one day after President Bush's State of the Union address and two days after the U.N. inspectors gave their first report on Iraq to the United Nations, the French official spoke at a forum put on by the European Institute.
After the address, which dealt almost exclusively with Iraq, the official took a number of questions.
The official said the United States and France agreed on most points regarding Iraq.
He said that the two countries agreed that Saddam was dangerous, and that the Iraqi government was not completely honest in the 12,000 page document that was meant to account for its weapons of mass destruction.
The official said that France and the United States differed primarily on the timetable and the trigger for using the military to force Saddam to comply with the U.N. Resolution 1441, which gives Saddam a final chance to come clean.
He refused to describe Iraq in "material breach" of U.N. demands that it disarm a legal term justifying military action that has been used by both the United States and Britain.
The Frenchman also urged the United Nations to pass a second resolution authorizing military force should the U.N. inspectors in Iraq declare that it is not cooperating.
He said that France agrees with "no nuance or hint of divergence" with the report that chief U.N. inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, presented to the United Nations on Monday.
While crediting President Bush's "determination" and "the presence of [U.S.] troops on the ground" in the region for forcing Iraq to accept U.N. inspections after a four-year absence, the official said that current inspections had to be given more time to work.
"Thanks to President Bush, inspectors are back in Iraq with more intrusive capabilities than before. … Saddam Hussein is locked in his box, and on top of that, we have inspectors in that box. We do not see the need to rush to war," he said.

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