- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) — There were no surprises for the Bush administration in the flood of criticism that followed Wednesday's opening salvos in the U.S.-led war against Iraq. The predictable leaders in the predictable capitals made predictable comments condemning the raids on Baghdad. Only the sharpness of the language differed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's unusually tough criticism was surprising. At a meeting of senior members of the Kremlin Thursday, he warned the Bush administration that it was making "a big political mistake." He said, "Russia insists on an end as quickly as possible to military action."

French President Jacques Chirac was muted by comparison. As the point man for the anti-war group in the U.N. Security Council, many thought he had overplayed his hand. But in his first public comment since the bombing started, the rhetoric was toned down considerably. "These operations will be as rapid and least deadly as possible, and that they don't lead to a humanitarian catastrophe," he said.

China came somewhere in between France and Moscow. The Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, said the United States was "violating the norms of international behavior." He said the "relevant countries" should "stop using force, stop military action" and return to settling the crisis within the U.N. framework.

Until the missiles started falling on Baghdad Wednesday, Putin had let Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov handle the public side of the crisis. Moscow has been opposed to the military option from the first, and Putin, who has fought hard to preserve his new partnership with President George W. Bush, wanted to avoid going public with his criticism.

Observers said he had so far saved his criticism for his phone conversations with Bush. But a Russian source told United Press International Thursday their more recent calls had been "quite sharp" as Putin realized he had failed to influence the course of U.S. actions.

With the outbreak of the war, Russia worries that the future of its large oil contracts with Iraq may be in jeopardy if the United States unseats Saddam and installs a regime more friendly to Washington in his place.

The growing public opposition to the war in Russia is seen as another reason for blunt language from the normally taciturn and cautious Putin. On Saturday, Putin faces what may turn out to be Moscow's largest-ever demonstration. Anti-war protesters plan to place thousands of cans of gasoline in front of the U.S. Embassy, reflecting the demonstration's "no war for oil" theme.

Chirac has his own reasons for toning down his rhetoric. Last week, the French president angered British Prime Minister Tony Blair by threatening to veto "under any circumstances" a U.N. Security Council resolution backing military action against Iraq if Saddam Hussein didn't disarm.

But Chirac and Blair are partners in the European Union. Even when Blair blames France for the failure of the diplomatic effort to disarm Baghdad, they remain personally linked through EU business — an endless round of meetings and other collective obligations.

On Thursday, Blair and Chirac — as well as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder — were meeting at an EU summit and dinner in Brussels. The meeting was scheduled long before the crisis to discuss employment and economic growth. Inevitably the original agenda has been overwhelmed by developments in Iraq.

As one senior British official told the Guardian newspaper in London, "It doesn't feel like business as usual — but at the same time I think there will be a determination to show that the goals that the EU has will still be pursued."

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