Western European nations toughened their stand against Iraq politically and militarily on Tuesday, with four more countries pledging to send warships to the Persian Gulf region and Britain ruling out negotiations for the release of Western hostages.
Rallying around the hostage issue, the governments of the nine members of the Western European Union met in emergency session in Paris. In an unprecedented display of European unity, they issued a joint statement warning Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein of "grave consequences" if any Europeans are placed at risk in Iraq.
Italy, Belgium, Greece and Spain announced that they are sending warships to the gulf, joining Britain, France and the Netherlands in a pan-European naval force that analysts said will greatly reduce the political pressure on Washington in enforcing the blockade against Iraq.
An angry British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said her country will not negotiate for the release of thousands of Western hostages in Baghdad, and she asserted that Western military forces in the gulf will use force to police the economic blockade there.
France, which ordered eight of its warships and 3,800 troops to the gulf last week but had wavered on the issue of using military muscle to enforce the blockade, hardened its position after Baghdad warned Paris on Tuesday that the 33 French citizens whom it has detained will be added to Iraq's "human shield" if France uses military force.
"The ulterior motives of Iraq directly affect us and revolt us," declared French Foreign Affairs Minister Roland Dumas. He chaired Tuesday's session of the little-known Western European Union, which has been dormant for most of its 42 years but is now asserting itself as a unique defense and political union for postwar Western Europe.
France's defense minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, announced that the French helicopter carrier Clemenceau will arrive in the Red Sea today. He also reiterated his government's intention that any commercial ships attempting to violate the embargo against Iraq will be treated with "firmness."
Speaking with a single voice, the union's statement was seen as a first-ever pan-European attempt to intensify the pressure of political isolation on President Hussein, whose military machine, the Arab world's largest, has relied heavily on French technology and supplies.
"It is very important that this should be clearly not a U.S. operation," British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said of the response to Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. "This will show that Europe is putting its ships where its (U.N.) Security Council votes are."
British Defense Secretary Tom King said he had "never seen so much unanimity" at any top-level meeting of European countries.
By the time Tuesday's session ended, Portugal and Luxembourg were the only members of the union that had not lent military support to the embargo effort although both pledged to assist in other ways.
Officials from West Germany, which has sent warships to the Mediterranean to relieve North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces deployed in the gulf, continued to maintain that their constitution prohibits direct military involvement outside NATO waters. However, they spoke out strongly against the Iraqi regime and signed the joint statement.
The Western European Union's members are France, Britain, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal. Greece, the other European country committing ships to the gulf, is not a member of the union.
In its final statement, the union announced that the defense ministers of all nine countries will meet Friday in Paris to develop a unified European command for their military forces in the gulf, and its members pledged "to consolidate still more the unprecedented international solidarity that has manifested itself since the (Iraqi) aggression."
Protesting Iraq's "inhuman treatment" of the estimated 12,000 Westerners trapped in Kuwait and Iraq, the nations declared: "We warn Iraq of the grave consequences that would inevitably ensue were their safety to be placed at risk."
(According to a Reuters dispatch quoting the Italian foreign ministry in Rome, Iraq has pledged it will allow citizens of six West European countries to leave Kuwait and travel to Jordan or Turkey via Baghdad.
(Ministry spokesman Mauro Conciatori was quoted as saying Iraqi authorities made the pledge orally to Italy's ambassador to Kuwait City Tuesday.
("Iraqi authorities in Kuwait told our ambassador Marco Colombo that Italian, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, Greek and Spanish citizens had been authorized to leave Kuwait City for Jordan or Turkey via Baghdad," Conciatori reportedly said.)
The statement by the Western European Union did not use the word hostage, a word that President Bush began using Monday.
But Thatcher, in her first public comments since returning from the United States two weeks ago, made her feelings clear.
"As Saddam Hussein is clearly using them as a bargaining factor, you could not possibly say they were merely detainees," she told a press conference at 10 Downing St. when asked whether the 4,700 Britons now trapped in Iraq are, indeed, hostages. "That would, in ordinary parlance, then be the appropriate word."
She added that no nation should consider negotiating the future of its citizens with President Hussein.
"You do not bargain over hostages," she declared. "Saddam Hussein is now trying in his tactics to hide behind Western women and children and use them as human shields and use them as part of his negotiations. We do not enter into such negotiations. These people are entitled to some human rights, which are being totally flouted, to the repugnance of the whole civilized world."
Thatcher called Hussein's new tactic "utterly repulsive," and she added that her government is "gravely concerned about the callous way in which Iraq is treating British and other foreign citizens."
She stressed that Britain, which has sent several warships and two squadrons of Tornado jet fighters to the gulf, has not ruled out using military force against Iraq and is considering increasing its military presence there. But she stressed that the economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait are the key to any peaceful settlement of the crisis.
She appealed for a Security Council resolution, proposed by the United States, that would put teeth in the embargo by sanctioning a military blockade of goods bound to and from Iraq.
"I cannot stress too much: That embargo must be effective," she declared. "That is our main means of bringing pressure on Iraq, and it must therefore be effective, and it must therefore be enforced, and we must have the means to enforce it."
WESTERN EUROPEAN UNION
Because NATO's charter limits its actions to Europe and surrounding waters, the West European democracies are turning to the little-known WEU to coordinate their military steps during the gulf crisis. Here are some facts about the organization: Members: Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, West Germany Founded: Treaty of Brussels, 1948 (expires 1998) Purposes: Originally, defense, social and economic cooperation. Most of its defense functions transferred to NATO in 1950; most other functions turned over to Council of Europe in 1960. Revived for cooperation on defense issues by the Rome Declaration of 1984. Policy-making body: WEU Council, made up of members' foreign ministers.