- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

PARIS, March 20 (UPI) — French President Jacques Chirac expressed regret Thursday at the start of the second Gulf War, which he said was being waged without U.N. authorization.

"I hope these operations will be as rapid and cause as few deaths as possible," Chirac said in an address to the nation. "And that they don't lead to a humanitarian catastrophe."

Either way, he said, the war will carry heavy consequences in the future.

Chirac's condemnation was echoed across the country's political spectrum. The French Senate and National Assembly halted their morning sessions in symbolic protest of military operations against Baghdad, launched only hours before.

"Mr. (George W.) Bush has unleashed an illegal and illegitimate war that will cause much suffering for the Iraqi people, and launch a shock wave in international relations," Socialist Party head Jean-Marc Ayrault said in a statement.

Leaders of France's Communist and far-right National Front Parties also condemned the war. Only a sprinkling of lone dissenters — mostly from Chirac's conservative Union for a Popular Movement Party — have spoken in favor of military action on Baghdad.

For his part, Chirac called on the European Union to build an independent voice.

"Europe must realize the importance of expressing its own vision of world problems and of supporting it with a common, credible defense," he said.

Waging war on Iraq has deeply divided EU members, which meet in Brussels for a summit later in the day. France has been particularly targeted for ire of U.S., British and Italian governments for leading a drive to give U.N. weapons inspectors in Baghdad more time and its threat to veto any resolution authorizing war.

With support uncertain at the U.N. Security Council for a new war resolution, Washington ultimately bypassed the body and began military strikes Iraq.

In an interview on France-Info radio, former French Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement expressed scorn at those European countries siding with Washington's campaign.

"There is the courageous position of (German Chancellor Gerhard) Schroeder, or Chirac, sided by Russia," said Chevenement, who resigned to protest the first Gulf War in 1991. "And there were the governments that were the peons of the United States."

Europe, Chevenement said, must rise to become a union that deals with the United States on an equal footing, rather than following its every wish.

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