- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

PARIS, March 14 (UPI) — France on Friday appeared to bend slightly on its tough Iraq position at the United Nations amid mounting criticism from the United States and Britain.

The latest evidence of diplomatic inching occurred when French President Jacques Chirac told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Paris was "prepared to work together for Iraq's disarmament" within the framework of United Nations resolution 1441.

The French president's remarks occurred during a telephone conversation initiated by

Chirac and reported by French media. A spokeswoman at the Elysee presidential palace confirmed the conversation for United Press International.

The day before, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin also told reporters Paris hoped to reach a compromise on the Iraqi standoff at the U.N. Security Council. France would still reject any war ultimatum but would consider a general deadline for U.N. weapons inspections of two months or less, he said.

De Villepin also placed a call to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to "explore the possibilities," the conservative Le Figaro newspaper reported Friday.

But whether the remarks offered a genuine shift in position, or amounted to mere posturing appears unclear.

On Friday and Thursday, respectively, Chirac and de Villepin reiterated French calls for a peaceful disarmament of Baghdad. De Villepin also rejected a six-point test for Iraq to avoid war proposed by Britain earlier in the week. The benchmarks included a requirement for Saddam Hussein to go on television, admit in Arabic that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and commit to their complete and documented destruction.

With Spain, Britain and the United States set for a summit on Iraq, time and patience for diplomatic wrangling may be running out.

"France is maneuvering from a strategy of weakness, with very little means," said Remy Leveau, referring to France's declining influence on the world stage. Leveau is a French specialist on the Middle East.

On Thursday, Bush aide Richard Perle told France's RTL radio he saw "no other explanation" besides betrayal if France vetoed a possible U.N. resolution on Iraq that in effect authorized military action if Iraq did not disarm quickly — a move as Chirac threatened to take this week.

Nonetheless, Chirac has scored points at home, where anti-war sentiment runs high. More anti-war demonstrations are scheduled Saturday in Paris, along with other parts of France.

For his part, the French president has downplayed fears of eroding French-U.S. relations. During his television interview Tuesday, Chirac said he did not believe U.S.

lawmakers would ultimately make good threats to boycott French products. And he added a potential French veto would not be particularly unusual, since France has used its veto on a number of previous occasions.

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