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Security Council Opponents May Feel Powerless to Wield Iraq Veto

Strategy: France, China and Russia know that voting against an invasion could backfire.


MOSCOW — Russia, China and France have made clear their opposition to an invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces. But so far, the three crucial members of the U.N. Security Council have not tried to agree on a strategy for stopping the Americans.

Diplomats and analysts in those countries say the three major powers may be helpless to stop President Bush if he's determined to go ahead. At most, the main opponents of a U.S. invasion can hope to embarrass the United States by pointedly blocking any U.N. sanction for military action.

As permanent members of the Security Council, the three nations can veto any resolution that comes before the body--as can the U.S. and its chief ally, Britain.

But they may feel powerless to wield that weapon if the U.S. seeks the world body's backing for military action, for fear the Bush administration will simply ignore the council's will--leaving them to appear ineffectual and out of the good graces of the world's leading military and economic power.

On Friday, Bush spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and met at the White House with Putin's foreign and defense ministers, seeking support for a tough new U.N. resolution approving the use of force if Iraq does not quickly accede to thorough weapons inspections.

Putin in his telephone call again insisted that U.N. inspection teams first be allowed to do their work and determine whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein does in fact have banned weapons of mass destruction, according to a Kremlin statement.

Analysts emphasized that it is still too early to predict how the diplomacy surrounding any attack will play out. There remains a strong possibility that the three main opponents to U.S. action will be brought around rather than risk a confrontation with the U.S. over a regime viewed as probably doomed anyway.

In the meantime, officials in the three nations play for time.

"What is going on now is a complicated game, rich in mutual bluff," said Russian defense analyst Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow Office of the Center for Defense Information. "The Americans are bluffing, saying that they will submit to the U.N. a new resolution on Iraq. Russia, France ... and China are bluffing that they are going to veto this resolution."

In actuality, Safranchuk says, "the last thing the Americans want is their resolution vetoed. They'd rather deliver a military strike without any resolution than with a vetoed resolution."

On the other hand, he noted, Russia, France and China would like to avoid vetoing a U.S. resolution, "which would be a re-creation of a situation reminiscent of the Cold War era" when the world was divided into sharply opposed camps.

So far, Russia has been the most vocal permanent member of the Security Council to oppose U.S. military action against Iraq.

France has been generally cool to the idea--but not as adamantly as in past disputes with Washington. In fact, France has left open the possibility that it might eventually agree to U.S.-led military action.

China, meanwhile, has stated opposition for the record, but has spoken so softly that no one is paying much attention.

Summing up the Russian position, Yuli M. Vorontsov, a former Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said, "Diplomatic means are preferable for resolving the situation, because in order to find out whether Iraq possesses mass destruction weapons it is necessary first to inspect Iraq's territory."

However, he said, a ground operation "would be a real nightmare for U.S. troops.... No one can predict what might happen."

Vorontsov believes that Russia would veto any U.N. resolution that seeks to validate a U.S. invasion of Iraq, though the Kremlin knows realistically that Bush may well go ahead with war plans anyway.

"If the White House decides to go ahead, there is no mechanism for Russia to stop the Americans," he said. But he warned that "relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world will immediately deteriorate, perhaps past redemption."

"Russia's only leverage is to veto, but even this is very weak," agreed Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Moscow think tank USA-Canada Institute and a security expert.

For now, Kremenyuk said, the Kremlin is just not convinced that Hussein has to go and believes the Iraqi leader's removal would hurt Russian interests in the long run.

Hussein has been a good customer of Russian technology and weapons and has given Russian companies access to Iraqi oil, he noted.

"In a word, Saddam is Russia's client--and it would be a pity to lose him," Kremenyuk said. "Replacing him with somebody else, especially someone appointed by the U.S., would mean Russia's ouster from Iraq sooner or later."

Perhaps more important, Russia would like to avoid an open breach on the Security Council, which could cause the United States to act alone, damaging the credibility of international diplomacy.

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