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Iraq: France Signals It Will Provide Alternative To U.S.-British Resolution

As the United States and Britain prepare to submit a new resolution on Iraq to the United Nations that sets the stage for war, France is signaling it will provide the Security Council with a peaceful proposal to choose instead. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says Paris is preparing a "memorandum" that would prolong the arms-inspection process by giving Baghdad a timeline in which to accomplish specific disarmament tasks. As RFE/RL reports, the French plan could set the stage for a major showdown at the UN over Iraq in the coming days.

Prague, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British plans to seek a new resolution on Iraq are meeting determined resistance by France, which now appears set to give the Security Council a clear alternative to the allies' proposal.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says Paris is convinced the arms-inspection process in Iraq is working and that it is too early for any new resolution endorsing the use of force to disarm Baghdad.

Washington and London are expected today to present a proposal for a new United Nations Security Council resolution that would authorize military action to disarm Iraq of suspected weapons of mass destruction.

The French foreign minister said in an interview yesterday with the French daily "Le Figaro" that Paris is developing what he called a "memorandum" for the United Nations, which would set a timeline for Baghdad to complete specific disarmament tasks. The timeline would set deadlines on a "program-by-program" basis for Iraq to reveal its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and destroy weapons already produced.

Analysts say the French proposal, which would prolong the arms-inspection process for months more, could give UN Security Council members a clear alternative to any U.S. demands to cut short the inspections process and disarm Baghdad militarily.

Steven Everts, a political expert at the Center for European Reform in London, said the French initiative could set the stage for a major showdown at the UN over Iraq in the coming days. "What the French are trying to do is solidify the majority in the Security Council that still would like to stick with the inspections process for the time being, or as long as they are delivering results, as people see it. And, on the whole, the majority of the Security Council is not behind the U.S. and the U.K. idea that inspections are a waste of time, that it is time now to look at the next steps [war]," Everts said.

Everts said: "It's a relatively shrewd move, because we know the U.S. and U.K. are tabling [submitting] a new resolution. We know it's going to say Iraq is not complying and it should now face the 'serious consequences' that [UN Resolution] 1441 mentions. If at the same time, or shortly afterwards, there is another proposal which says that we think that disarmament through inspections can work, and here is how, I would think that would have rather more votes in the council than a U.S.-U.K. proposal" to use force.

De Villepin said in outlining the French plan over the weekend that France will oppose any new UN Security Council resolution so long as Paris believes the arms-inspection process is working. He did not specify if French opposition would include using its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council.

The top French diplomat has frequently argued in the past for prolonging arms inspections, most recently in the wake of a report by top UN arms inspector Hans Blix to the Security Council 10 days ago. Blix told the Security Council on 14 February that Baghdad had recently improved cooperation with his team.

De Villepin used that occasion to tell the Security Council that arms inspections are "the safest and fastest" way to disarm a country. "In contrast [to the use of force], the inspections offer an alternative that will allow us to move closer and closer, day by day, toward an efficient and peaceful disarmament of Iraq. We should ask ourselves whether ultimately this option would not be the safest and fastest solution," de Villepin said.

In his interview with "Le Figaro" yesterday, de Villepin said he continues to see signs that the arms inspectors are making progress. He cited Blix's recent order to Iraq to destroy by 1 March its liquid-fuelled Al-Sumud 2 missiles, whose range exceeds limits imposed by the UN. Iraq says it is seriously studying the order.

But even as France now appears ready to solidify opposition on the Security Council to a resolution sponsored by the United States and Britain, some observers say the French plan should not be seen as a complete rejection of Washington's forceful stand on Baghdad.

Everts said that if it is to work, the French plan will need the continued presence of a strong U.S.-led force in the Persian Gulf to give credibility to the UN's disarmament demands upon Baghdad. "The big paradox is that the French proposal to disarm Iraq through inspections can only work because there is the U.S. threat of force behind it. On its own, I don't think it has a chance in hell of working. But inspections plus threat of force could work," Everts said.

De Villepin yesterday acknowledged that interdependence as he described his plan in the French press. He said that "certainly the American military pressure plays a role. Would there be any greater success for the Bush administration than to pull back its forces, after seeing the inspection process through, seeing the disarmament of Iraq through, without firing a shot and without a single death?"

It now remains to be seen in the days ahead just how Paris will shape the details of its proposed memorandum and when it will submit it to the Security Council. The UN Security Council is due to meet again on 7 March to hear a new report from Blix regarding the state of Iraqi cooperation.

News agencies report U.S. and European diplomats saying privately that Washington and London will submit their resolution later today and press for its adoption immediately after Blix's report. That means that any French memorandum must be presented to the Security Council only shortly after the U.S. proposal if the two are to contend for support.

The French news agency AFP quoted French President Jacques Chirac's spokeswoman as saying that aspects of the French proposal could begin to circulate at the UN as early as today. Spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said "France wants to give disarmament in Iraq through peaceful means every chance of succeeding" and that inspections "should be pursued and reinforced."