- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

President Bush yesterday began working to repair the rift with allies even as he finalized plans for an imminent military strike against Iraq that Russia and France continued to oppose.
Although Mr. Bush made no overture to French President Jacques Chirac, whom the administration blames most for the failure of diplomacy, he began his day by telephoning Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The two openly acknowledged that they don't see eye to eye on whether or not force should be used to disarm [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "But the two of them, in the phone call, did stress to each other the importance of maintaining good U.S.-Russian relations."
The conciliatory rhetoric came just hours after Mr. Bush complained in a prime-time speech that some U.S. allies "don't share our resolve." Asked if that included Russia, Mr. Fleischer said: "The president didn't specifically define who he was referring to, so I wouldn't define it for him."
The White House was also reluctant to publicly criticize France, whose threatened veto doomed a United Nations Security Council resolution against Iraq on Monday. The United States withdrew the resolution to preclude its failure.
"On this issue, we see it very much the opposite, and the president regrets that," Mr. Fleischer said.
But he emphasized that "even in the thick of the disagreement," Paris "has been a good partner in the war against terrorism." For example, he cited France's willingness to share information about terrorists.
His comments came shortly after Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the United States, began efforts to repair the Franco-American rift. In a softening of France's adamant anti-war posture, Mr. Levitte suggested French troops might join the fight if Saddam uses biological or chemical weapons.
"This would change the situation completely and immediately for the French government," he said. "We have equipment to fight in these circumstances."
The White House expressed surprise at the about-face.
"That is a notable statement for France to say such a thing," Mr. Fleischer said. "Let us hope that never comes to pass, because it is premised on our troops being hit with chemical or biological weapons."
France was not the only nation to hint of a veto at various points in the debate about the latest U.N. resolution. Russia and China also signaled that they would not support the measure.
Yesterday, Mr. Bush reached out to the new president of China, Hu Jintao, to discuss Iraq and another world hot spot, North Korea.
Without naming names, Mr. Fleischer made clear that the president remains unhappy that China, Russia and France were among nations on the Security Council that refused to support the latest resolution. He noted that those same nations all voted last year for a resolution calling for "serious consequences" if Saddam did not disarm immediately.
Also yesterday, the administration refused to budge from its 48-hour deadline for Saddam to leave Iraq with his sons to avert war. The deadline expires at 8 p.m. EST today.
"If Saddam were to leave, the American forces, coalition forces, would still enter Iraq hopefully this time peacefully because the Iraqi military would not be under orders to attack or fire back," Mr. Fleischer said. "And that way Iraq could be disarmed from the possession of weapons of mass destruction."

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