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Iraq: Envoys Seek To Convince Europeans Not To Back Any U.S.-Led Attack

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraq is launching a new diplomatic offensive aimed at gaining support from European states against any U.S. military campaign targeting Baghdad. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the new initiative comes as Washington is having difficulty building its case in Europe that toppling Saddam Hussein is the only sure way to stop Iraq's weapons development programs.

Prague, 2 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq is stepping up efforts to urge European governments not to back possible U.S. military action against Baghdad.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said yesterday that Iraq would send envoys in the weeks ahead to European capitals to explain what he called the "dangers" any such American-led action would pose for world security.

Ramadan also said Baghdad considers the need to make its case for European support urgent in the face of repeated statements by Washington that it wants to change the regime in Baghdad. He said, "We are taking American threats seriously, and we are working as if war is taking place now."

The announcement of the latest Iraqi diplomatic offensive comes as European Union foreign ministers met at the weekend in Elsinore, Denmark, to discuss -- among other things -- the Iraq crisis and their need to develop a common position toward it.

The two-day talks in Elsinore produced no unified statement on Iraq, but many of the foreign ministers stressed they want Iraq to readmit arms inspectors and Washington not to take any unilateral action.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, who hosted the meeting, told reporters: "The EU says the Iraqi regime must allow the arms inspectors in immediately to find out whether there are weapons of mass destruction or not." He said, "We also encourage the United States to continue broad consultations on the question of Iraq."

As Iraq woos European governments, it hopes to profit from what currently is a diversity of opinions among them over how to respond to Washington's argument that Baghdad's weapons programs pose an imminent danger to Western security. The Bush administration has said that Iraq is a threat to its neighbors and ultimately could provide weapons of mass destruction to international terrorist organizations.

Top U.S. officials have repeatedly made that argument in recent months. Speaking in Tokyo last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said:

"An Iraq left unattended is a threat to its neighbors, ultimately a threat to ourselves given the fact that the regime in Baghdad has had a consistent program striving for weapons of mass destruction and, indeed, has used chemical weapons on its own population, as well as the well-known invasion and attempted subjugation of Kuwait."

But so far, many European leaders have signaled that -- while they acknowledge Iraq is a security threat -- they want to deal with the crisis politically, not militarily.

At the Elsinore meeting, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer spoke out strongly against military intervention. He told reporters, "I presented my concerns about how to calculate the risks [of the military option] and our rejection of war and occupation to change the regime."

Germany is set to elect its next head of government later this month in a contest which pits Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder against challenger Edmund Stoiber. Both candidates have called on the United States not to undertake any unilateral action against Iraq.

Stoiber said last week that any decision regarding what to do about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- whom he said "poses a threat to peace in the region and further beyond" -- lies solely with the United Nations.

"The monopoly on deciding and taking action in this issue lies with the UN. Unilateral moves on this question by a nation, without the consultation or mandate of the international community, are not compatible with that."

French leaders have been largely quiet in the European debate over Iraq, but at the Elsinore meeting Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said it was up to the UN Security Council, "to examine all options, including the military one."

Villepin's diplomatic phrasing repeated a warning last week from French President Jacques Chirac that any military action without a UN mandate would run counter to international rules. Chirac told a gathering of French ambassadors in Paris that "if Baghdad continues to refuse the unconditional return of [UN arms] inspectors, it must be up to the UN Security Council to decide what measures to take."

Britain -- America's closest ally -- has come the nearest to backing Washington's calls for tough action on Iraq. But it has yet to say clearly whether it would support -- or take part -- in any military campaign to topple Saddam.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said over the weekend that the world cannot stand by and watch Baghdad develop weapons of mass destruction "in flagrant breach" of UN resolutions. But he did not specify what action should be taken. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said recently that weapons inspections are the priority of London's Iraq policy, suggesting that Britain wants to see diplomatic options pursued before committing to more forceful steps.

In an apparent response to the British position, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said over the weekend in an interview with BBC television that Washington wants the "first step" toward solving the Iraq crisis to be the return of weapons inspectors. His statement offered a contrast to the stance taken by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who said last week that Baghdad's possession of weapons of mass destruction justifies a preemptive strike.

As the EU states weigh what to do about Iraq, Baghdad is seeking to convince them that any U.S. military action would severely disrupt the Mideast and the world economy.

Iraqi Vice President Ramadan said last week that Iraq poses no terrorist threat. And he said that if America attacks Baghdad, it will not be as simple a matter as overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and replacing it with an opposition-based government.

"America did not win Afghanistan and the issue is still there. There is a government residing in a hotel and guarded by U.S soldiers. We don't want to compare the two -- Iraq is not Afghanistan that followed the Taliban. I believe that the U.S. administration knows that. And this talk about the Iraqi opposition is insignificant, something that doesn't merit a reply. It doesn't exist, and has no roots on the ground in Iraq."

Another Iraqi official, Minister of Planning Hassan al-Khattab, said last week at the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg that any attack on Iraq would cause the price of oil to soar.

"We will continue to export our oil, and I think [the U.S.] will make a big mistake if they attack Iraq because all the world rejects that and refuses that, and I think it will affect the whole economy in the world, because the oil [prices] will go up and it will be a problem, a big problem for poor people."

Baghdad is likely to repeat such messages over and over in European capitals during the weeks ahead. That is almost certain to spark new rounds of public debate between the U.S. and Europe over Iraq's future.

At the same time, Iraqi officials are maintaining efforts to convince Russia not to back Washington. Moscow, which is one of Iraq's biggest supporters on the UN Security Council and a major trading partner, is under strong U.S. pressure to isolate Baghdad in the war on terror.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri began a two-day state visit to Moscow today to discuss Baghdad's situation, as well as bilateral cooperation. Shortly before meeting Sabri, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters that it is important for the world to "take preemptive measures" in the fight against international terrorism, but only under agreement of the United Nations.

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