The reports over the weekend were something of a sensation: a new French-German peace plan for Iraq involving more weapons inspectors backed up by thousands of United Nations troops. But French and German officials have since played down the reports. They say peacekeepers may not be involved and that the ideas don't really amount to a formal plan at all. Still, the discussions have again laid bare divisions between the United States and Britain on the one side, and most of Europe on the other, over how to confront Iraq. Those divisions were made even starker today when France and Germany defied the United States by blocking NATO plans to boost Turkey's defenses in the event of war.
Prague, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The reports this weekend created quite a stir: France and Germany had cooked up a secret peace plan for Iraq. The German weekly "Der Spiegel" had the most details. The plan would triple the number of weapons inspectors currently combing Iraq for evidence of banned weapons and put in thousands of United Nations troops to help them. A no-fly zone would extend over the entire country, and a UN court would rule on Iraq's human rights abuses.
The German defense minister, Peter Struck, yesterday confirmed the plan to beef up inspections. "It goes back to a comment by the French foreign minister [Dominique de Villepin] in the Security Council [on 5 February], which called for an increase in the number of inspectors in Iraq. We support this measure, because it's crucial that the inspectors can really investigate fully whether [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction, and if yes, that these are destroyed under the supervision of the UN. We are in close agreement with France on this. We hope that the initiative will be taken up positively in the Security Council on 14 February after [chief UN weapons inspector Hans] Blix has given his report," Struck said.
Initial Russian reaction to the plan was positive, with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov saying Russia could support the French-German initiative.
But France and Germany have since played down the reports. There's no formal plan and certainly no "secret plan," officials say. Struck today denied that the proposals call for a deployment of peacekeepers, though a German government spokesman, Bela Anda, later said this would depend on the UN Security Council, which he said is currently mulling over the ideas.
Timothy Garden, an associate fellow at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, said the proposals are designed as an alternative to "a rush to war." "It puts something more concrete on the table on Friday [14 February] at the UN when the two inspectors [Blix and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad el-Baradei] will report back to the Security Council, and in a way gives an alternative to the second resolution calling for war. I think there is a strong feeling in France, Germany, Belgium, and perhaps elsewhere, perhaps Russia and maybe China, that they do need some alternative on the table," Garden said.
The discussions have again laid bare divisions over how to confront Iraq. France and Germany lead European opposition to a war that the United States and Britain say is necessary if Baghdad does not disarm.
Washington dismissed the proposals as a "diversion" and was further angered that France and Germany had apparently not consulted with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking yesterday of the proposal, said: "It misses the point. It's not more inspectors that we need. It's more cooperation, far more cooperation from Saddam Hussein. It's the need for Saddam Hussein to come into compliance with the basic requirements of UN Resolution 1441."
Blix himself reiterated that sentiment today. After leaving Baghdad, where he and el-Baradei spent the weekend holding talks with Iraqi officials, Blix said the key to determining whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction is Iraqi cooperation and not the number of weapons inspectors.
Divisions between the two main camps were in further evidence today when France, Germany, and Belgium blocked NATO plans to begin planning for Turkey's defenses should a war start. Their position is that these preparations send a signal that war is imminent. But U.S. Secretary of State Rumsfeld called opposition to NATO's plans "disgraceful," and U.S. Senator John McCain decried what he said was France and Germany's "new unilateralism."
Garden said this latest move will only reinforce the U.S. view that it should pursue bilateral deals instead of seeking multilateral help from the alliance. "The Americans were already pretty fed up with NATO one way or another, and I think this will confirm that NATO is not the way to run security operations in the American mind, and they will want to continue along bilateral dealings. And when we look back in history in 20 years' time or so, we may decide that today was the day that NATO was finally cast into irrelevance," Garden said.
Franz-Dieter Schwarz, an expert at the German Institute for International Security Affairs in Berlin, said the mounting Iraq crisis has proved a disaster for relations between the United States and some of the big European powers. "Saddam Hussein was very successful in creating this split in the Western world," Schwarz said.
German Defense Minister Struck said the French-German proposals will be submitted to the Security Council in the form of a draft UN resolution on 14 Feb, the same day as the weapons inspectors' new report.