- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

PARIS, March 17 (UPI) — Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on Monday reiterated France's opposition to any near-term war against Baghdad just hours before the U.N. Security Council was to considered the Iraq situation.

"The Iraqi crisis is not a problem between them and France," de Villepin told Europe-1 radio, referring to U.S., Britain and Spanish leaders who met Sunday in the Azores to discuss Iraq. "It's a problem today between those who decide to enter into a logic of war and the international community that in its very large majority believes it is inopportune."

De Villepin's remarks comes on a critical — and perhaps final day — for international diplomacy to solve the Iraqi crisis. The three leaders meeting in the

Portuguese territory effectively gave a 24-hour deadline for Iraq to disarm — as mandated in previous Security Council resolutions — or face war.

The United States has massed a large force in the region around Iraq, with personnel poised on the country's borders waiting word from Washington to attack.

But de Villepin suggested instead shortening the window for U.N. inspections to a month — even as he acknowledged military action against Baghdad appeared a foregone conclusion.

"Twenty-four hours for the international community to decide … even though we already know the response," de Villepin told the French radio. "Because its war in any scenario. Either with a backing by the United Nations or on a unilateral basis. It's a choice that doesn't appear to reflect the demands of the Iraqi situation today."

Indeed, de Villepin said, Washington's military calendar had taken precedence over a political one for the last few months. He reiterated Paris' belief that Washington lacks the votes at the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing force. Washington, however, contends that Security Council Resolution 1441 provides that authority.

During a television interview on CNN, French President Jacques Chirac also reiterated his past threat that France may veto any possible war resolution at the United Nations.

France has been particularly singled out for criticism by the United States, even though other Security Council members, including China and Russia, have expressed opposition to war on Iraq.

The Iraqi crisis has eroded U.S.-French ties, and some French companies fret about possible American trade sanctions and other retaliatory measures.

De Villepin again insisted France remained Washington's friend and that France would be at its side to help, in the event of a chemical or biological crisis.

He said he remained in regular contact with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to explain the French position — but that Chirac and U.S. President George W. Bush had not spoken in recent days.

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