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The World | DEBATE ON IRAQ

Nations Are Hardly United Behind Bush

Reaction: Most are skeptical of attacking Iraq, but welcome president's appearance before world body.

September 13, 2002|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — The cavernous General Assembly chamber was solemn and still as President Bush on Thursday warned the world body to act against Iraq or stand back. But afterward, the ambassadors and ministers gathered here had plenty to say.

While most welcomed the president's willingness to work through the United Nations--at least initially--even some of Washington's allies said they are reluctant to authorize military force to compel Iraq to disarm.

"The choice for us is not between action or inaction, but rather knowing how to act," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said. "We have to make sure that we don't add to the crisis and to the instability."

That journey to action could be a defining moment for the United Nations as it struggles to reinvigorate its place on the global stage.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the delegates from 190 nations before Bush spoke, and he used the occasion to remind the president and delegates that the U.N. was founded for nations to work together for peace, not to unify for war. But if it must come to the use of force, the U.S. should work through the "unique legitimacy" of the world body and not strike on its own, Annan said to applause.

At the same time, Annan had a harsh warning for Iraq, saying that if it wants U.N. sanctions lifted, it must immediately allow the resumption of weapons inspections or face the consequences.

In the initial Iraqi response to the speeches, Ambassador Mohammed Douri said Bush's claim that Iraq continues to develop weapons of mass destruction was "the longest series of fabrications that have ever been told by a leader of a nation."

He dismissed U.S. threats but said Iraq is ready to defend itself, if necessary.

"I would have been pleased if the U.S. president would have talked about his true motives behind his speech--revenge, oil, political ambitions and also the security of Israel, and targeting every independent state that would refuse to adhere to the American policy," Douri said.

The members of the 15-nation Security Council agree that the first step on Iraq should be a new resolution demanding unconditional access for weapons inspectors to verify that the country is rid of any chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The question haunting the halls here is: If Iraq refuses, what should the consequences be?

The Security Council's options are few and bleak. If Iraq continues to be defiant, the council can impose more sanctions or another embargo, tools that are already in place and that many consider a failure. Or there is military action. Diplomats will be meeting in small groups behind closed doors over the next few weeks to determine if there is something in between.

France will present a draft resolution to council members today proposing a three-week deadline for the resumption of arms inspections in Iraq. If Baghdad fails to comply, then the council would debate the next step, including the use of force. The U.S. and Britain are working on a separate resolution to be introduced later, perhaps an omnibus plan with several demands.

"President Bush has started with the most general concept, but the pace of the discussions will be more deliberate than you expect," British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock told reporters. "There are serious concepts to work out that will take time."

In his speech, Bush outlined his criteria for the Iraqi regime to avoid an attack, including a halt to the oppression of its people, an end to illicit trade outside U.N. oil-for-food programs, and a cessation of support for terrorism.

Although there is no guarantee that those demands will be included in a resolution, the list contains items to help lure support of hesitant would-be allies: Requiring Iraq to pay all debts and return stolen property from the 1990 invasion of Kuwait would satisfy Kuwait, and also Russia, which Baghdad owes as much as $8 billion.

The State Department is conducting a flurry of additional behind-the-scenes deals to reassure Iraq's neighbors that depend heavily on gray-market trade with Baghdad, diplomats say.

Besides the U.S., Britain and France, Russia and China also have the power to veto any proposal that comes before the Security Council. Although Russia and China oppose the use of force, neither would probably reject a new resolution demanding a tougher inspection program, their representatives say.

"We have openly stated we are opposed to military action but that Iraq should let the inspectors finish what has been left of disarmament issues," Chinese Ambassador Wang Yingfan said.

Overall, even more than his carefully crafted challenge, Bush's decision just to appear at the U.N. may have had the most effect on skeptical delegates.

European leaders who have been particularly critical of Washington's rumblings of war were relieved that the president chose to consult the international community before forging ahead, said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister and current president of the European Union.

"The fact that the United States has so strongly engaged with the United Nations will significantly affect the outlook of EU partners," he said. "The context in which we view the Iraq problem has now changed."

But doubts lingered about whether Bush had made his case that Iraq is, as he put it, "a grave and gathering danger."

"The president challenged us on all the violations, and certainly the Security Council will have to take that challenge seriously," said Jan Petersen, the foreign minister of Norway, which holds a rotating seat on the Security Council. "But then of course there is the question, to what extent do they pose a threat? We need to know more to be convinced."

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