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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

With War on Horizon, a Last Effort at Peace

Chances of an attack on Iraq are 'much more probable,' says Britain's Straw. Hundreds of thousands worldwide take to the streets.

March 16, 2003|Aaron Zitner and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — From Asia to Europe and the seat of American power, hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters took to the streets Saturday in a global appeal for peace, as President Bush prepared for a summit with allies today billed as a final diplomatic effort before an attack on Iraq.

The protests in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Barcelona, Berlin and many other cities came even as world leaders said a war in Iraq was likely within days.

"The prospect of military action is now much more probable, and I greatly regret that," British Foreign Minister Jack Straw told BBC Radio.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said he thought Washington was now operating on the belief that combat could start in a matter of days. In what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to forestall U.S. action, France, Russia and Germany called for an emergency meeting of foreign ministers Tuesday at the U.N. Security Council. In Washington, the State Department responded with a terse "no comment" to the proposal.

In his weekly radio address, President Bush restated his commitment to disarming the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "Crucial days lie ahead for the free nations of the world. Governments are now showing whether their stated commitments to liberty and security are words alone -- or convictions they're prepared to act upon," Bush said.

Bush said there "is little reason to hope that Saddam Hussein will disarm. If force is required to disarm him, the American people can know that our armed forces have been given every tool and every resource to achieve victory."

Hussein placed his country on a war footing and divided the nation into four military regions under the command of trusted lieutenants. His son Qusai was given charge of a region including Baghdad and Tikrit, the president's hometown.

Iraq's Foreign Ministry said Hussein's science advisor, Lt. Gen. Amer Saadi -- the point man on disarmament -- had invited the two chief U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, to come to Baghdad at the "earliest suitable date" to discuss "means to speed up joint cooperation ... in all fields, especially facilitating the verification process of issues considered outstanding."

At U.N. headquarters in New York, Blix said he would study the invitation and discuss it with the Security Council.

The calls for new consultations came as Bush prepared to meet today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Their nations have co-sponsored with the U.S. a proposed Security Council resolution effectively authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

The summit, to take place at a U.S. Air Force base on Terceira, part of the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, was announced Friday as it became clear that the United States and its Security Council allies lacked the votes to pass the Iraq resolution.

Bush, Blair and Aznar are expected to discuss abandoning their resolution early next week rather than face near-certain defeat at the council. In Washington, administration officials said the three were expected to issue a strong statement at the end of their consultations.

However, Bush continued to try to build support for the resolution Saturday, phoning Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.

Nearly 250,000 U.S. and British troops are in the Persian Gulf region, and Bush has said he is prepared to lead a war even without approval from the Security Council. But France, Germany and Russia, the leaders of the Security Council's antiwar bloc, issued a declaration saying: "We reaffirm that nothing justifies in the present circumstances putting a stop to the inspection process and resorting to the use of force."

The three nations called for a foreign ministers session at the Security Council on Tuesday to discuss a "realistic" timetable for Hussein to disarm. The meeting would follow the latest progress report by Blix on the weapons inspections in Iraq.

"The use of force can only be a last resort," the declaration said. "We solemnly call on all the members of the Council to do everything possible" to disarm Iraq peacefully.

In an interview after the statement was released, De Villepin, the French foreign minister, said "France is prepared to compromise, on the basis of a very tight timetable [for disarmament inspections], but not on an ultimatum and not on automatic recourse to force."

But U.S. officials have indicated little interest in seeking further compromise that would stretch out the timetable for action.

As the last-minute diplomatic maneuvering played out, hundreds of thousands of people added their voices to the debate by joining antiwar protests.

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