- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

PARIS, Jan. 7 (UPI) — French President Jacques Chirac offered mixed signals Tuesday over France's appetite for participating in a possible war against Iraq, as he urged the country's military establishment to prepare "against all possibilities," but later cautioned French diplomats that the

United Nations Security Council should be the final decision maker.

"An eventual decision to use force should be explicit, and should be taken by the United Nations Security Council based on a report issued by the (U.N. weapons) inspectors," Chirac told the French diplomatic corps, during a New Year's reunion that took place after the president's remarks to the military.

"France, which has always assumed its responsibilities, intends to keep its full freedom of assessment."

Those words are a vague but familiar mantra of the French president and his conservative government. Nonetheless, his statements to the military suggested that France may participate in a possible war on Baghdad.

Chirac's insistence against unilateral action by the United States is nothing new. Along with Russia and China, France lobbied strongly last fall for a more nuanced U.N. Security Council resolution. The trio succeeded in scrapping U.S.-backed wording for an automatic recourse to force if Baghdad is deemed out of compliance.

It is also unclear whether Chirac's statements Tuesday offer any change in the French position.

Besides telling the French armed forces to be prepared for any situation, "particularly the way Iraq applies United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441," Chirac also announced that the French Parliament would hold a debate on Iraq.

French lawmakers held a similar debate on Iraq last fall, and it is unclear whether a new discussion will carry political weight, or simply be an occasion to let off hot air.

Indeed, reactions to Chirac's remarks were swift and not always positive.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist Party bloc at the National Assembly, accused Chirac of siding with a bellicose position embraced by U.S. President George W. Bush.

The French president "has resigned himself to this war of the absurd and is preparing the national and international opinion for a French military engagement," Ayrault said in a statement.

The smaller, conservative Movement for France Party also accused Chirac of "encouraging" Washington's drumbeat for war.

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