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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

France, Russia Promise Veto Against War

U.S. puts off Iraq vote after blunt language from the two. Other Security Council members question their own positions.

March 11, 2003|Robin Wright and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — France and Russia declared Monday that they would veto a resolution authorizing war against Iraq, forcing the United States to put off a Security Council vote while searching for a compromise that would salvage the proposal.

With 300,000 troops massing in the Middle East, the U.S., Britain and Spain were still unable to muster a majority of the council members to back a March 17 deadline for Iraq to disarm or be invaded. The Bush administration still hopes to have a vote this week.

But even if the U.S. wins over a majority of the 15-member council, it still has to deal with the veto issue. After dropping strong hints in recent days, France and Russia said Monday that they would veto the resolution.

"My position is that whatever the circumstances, France will vote no because it considers, this evening, that there is no reason to go to war to achieve the objective we have set, that is the disarmament of Iraq," French President Jacques Chirac said during a television interview in Paris.

A French veto would mark the first time since the 1956 Suez crisis that France has blocked a U.S. proposal at the Security Council. Chirac also warned that a U.S.-led war against Iraq would break up the international coalition of about 90 nations fighting the war on terrorism.

Chirac's declaration clearly sent ripples through the bloc of undecided countries, including Pakistan and Chile, causing some to reassess the costs and benefits of supporting a resolution that may fail. Today, a ruling party spokesman in Pakistan said his country intends to abstain from any vote.

The Bush administration said it was not surprised by France's decision but felt that Russia's position did not rule out an eventual shift. In what increasingly looks like a game of chicken, Washington is still trying to get the nine votes needed to pass a resolution, in the hope that it can convince Russia not to vote against the majority.

The outcome would then be decided by a diplomatic face-off at the Security Council between the United States and France, with Washington calculating that Paris would, in the end, choose not to cast its veto.

The calculation is based on weakening Russia, however, at the very moment it appears to be firming up its resistance. If the resolution is put to a vote this week, "Russia will vote against," Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov warned Monday. He called the ultimatum contradictory and unattainable.

He also appealed to other voting members to "take a decision in favor of a political settlement" and said the inspections should be allowed to run for several more months.

With the tide turning against them, the United States and Britain regrouped as they considered ideas to win votes on the polarized Security Council. Among the proposals is listing specific "tasks" or "tests" Iraq must perform to prove it is surrendering its weapons of mass destruction.

"Some nations have suggested such things as benchmarks. There are ideas that are being explored and looked at. And so it is too soon to say what the final document that will be voted on will include. It's too soon to say what the exact date will be," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday.

"There's an important phase of diplomacy underway as we speak. That diplomacy is marked by some level of flexibility," Fleischer said.

By laying out clear tests for Baghdad, the United States and its allies hope to address other nations' concerns about what Iraq can do to avert war.

Britain, responding to growing domestic and international opposition to war, pressed for the new steps to forge a consensus. "We are examining whether a list of defined tasks for Iraqi compliance would be useful in helping the council come to a judgment," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament on Monday.

Those tests could include demands that Iraq allow many or most of the 300 top Iraqi scientists to leave the country for interviews and that Baghdad turn over to U.N. inspectors the mobile laboratories Washington alleges are used to produce chemical and biological weapons, U.S. and British officials said.

Other Security Council members have requested clarifications of what Iraq must do to comply, said a U.S. envoy at the United Nations.

"But they are also saying, 'Make it easier for us to support the resolution.' It doesn't mean that they oppose the resolution. This could satisfy any concerns," the envoy said.

U.S. officials are also wary that the move could backfire.

"We have entertained the idea but haven't gone very far because of all the drawbacks. People will start giving things Iraqis can say 'yes' to .... At the same time, we are listening if people say, 'Do it this way, and then we'll sign on,' " a senior State Department official said.

In a politically charged Security Council session Monday, chief inspector Hans Blix said he was prepared to present key unresolved issues in the form of tests, but he cautioned that they could not be completed in less than "a few months."

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