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Gap Is Closing on Iraq Resolution, Briton Says

'A lot of interesting debate' has given Foreign Secretary Jack Straw hope that France and Russia will be persuaded soon.

October 31, 2002|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Weeks of tough negotiations at the United Nations over a proposed U.S.-British resolution on Iraq have achieved a "very, very significant closing of the gap," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Wednesday.

"I think we probably will be able to resolve the matter," Straw said in an interview here. "There's been a lot of very interesting debate. I wouldn't put a specific time schedule on it. Could be next week. Could be the week after that."

France and Russia, which hold permanent Security Council seats along with the United States, Britain and China, have resisted any resolution that would allow the United States to take automatic military action against the Iraqi regime if Baghdad refuses to rid itself of any weapons of mass destruction.

Straw's words and tone echoed the cautious optimism expressed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other diplomats as the deal-making process accelerates at the U.N. Saying he is immersed in discussions involving numerous phone conversations each day with other key players in the debate, the British foreign secretary described a process that appears to be zeroing in on final significant details.

The essence of the debate has boiled down to not what to do about Iraq, but who should decide it. The U.S. still claims the right to attack the country if the U.N. doesn't take action. With British help, however, France and the U.S. are discussing a compromise that would require Washington to consult with the Security Council after reports of any Iraqi violation of a new resolution -- though not be bound by the council's decision.

The latest proposal zinging between Paris and Washington adds French amendments to emphasize that only the council can decide whether violations by Iraq would constitute "a further material breach" -- and initiate the use of force.

France had worried that the U.S. would use other mentions of material breach in the text as a "hidden trigger" for an attack.

"You can never be certain about these things," Straw said. "If I was certain, then the agreement would be there. And when you have the final stages of the negotiation, they are always the most difficult. But my sense is that the [five permanent Security Council] members want to reach an agreement. My own sense is there's a widespread recognition of the need for action to be taken by the United Nations."

If the council eventually crafts an agreement, Britain will have helped to pull off a delicate diplomatic feat: endorsing a hard-line U.S. policy toward Iraq while steering that policy through the United Nations as urged by France and other nations worried about unchecked U.S. power.

In comments in Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair similarly held out hope for an accord and rejected a legislator's assertion that Powell had demanded a U.N. decision by the end of the week. Withstanding political heat from Britons who are dubious about a war against Iraq, the Blair government has served as a kind of bridge between the U.S. -- seen by European critics as a lone gunslinger eager for war -- and the international community during the U.N. debate.

Straw's role has been crucial. Despite the red-eyed pace of the past weeks, he seemed relaxed Wednesday. He joked that the painstaking business of crafting the U.N. resolution has filled his head with the stilted official language of the texts.

Another French proposal for the compromise resolution tries to distinguish Iraq's "material breach" in the past from a possible breach in the future, to clarify that only a new violation can trigger action. The result is an awkward phrase opening the resolution's first operative paragraph: "As long as this resolution remains unimplemented...." British diplomats, masters of the art of drafting, have been trying to find a more graceful solution.

"I wake up rehearsing various operative paragraphs," Straw said, chuckling. "How do you move from the conditional to the future of French for that word?"

Straw, 56, became Britain's top diplomat last year after serving as home secretary, the nation's top law enforcement official, since 1997. The unflappable and bespectacled Cabinet minister became internationally known in 1998 when he oversaw the convoluted case of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who was arrested by British police on a Spanish warrant and then sent home after 16 months in legal limbo.

On Iraq, Straw has staked out a firmly pro-U.S. position while articulating a policy that differs quietly from the Bush administration on certain points. The Blair government has stopped short of joining President Bush's combative talk about bringing down Hussein.

"Our objective is the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime and not regime change itself," Straw said. "We would prefer that, of course, but it is not the objective we are seeking in the United Nations."

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