Chirac Backs U.N. Inspectors' Request for More Time

Times Staff Writer

PARIS -- Sending a signal to both Baghdad and Washington at a tense moment, French President Jacques Chirac joined the United Nations' two top arms officials Friday in urging the Security Council to give weapons inspectors more time to do their work in Iraq.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, director- general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said they needed several more months to complete the inspection process.

"We all know the alternative is war," ElBaradei said. "If we can avoid that by spending a few more months doing our job, it will be time well spent."

After meeting with the two men here, Chirac staunchly supported their request.

"Wisdom dictates that we give them the necessary time," Chirac said. "For France, war would still represent the result of failure and the worst solution."

As thousands of U.S. troops continued to deploy in the Middle East and U.N. inspectors prepared a crucial report that is due Jan. 27, Chirac repeated his opposition to solo military action by the United States.

"The inspectors have been given a mission," he said. "If some country or other acts outside that framework, it would be a violation of international law."

Chirac's cautious approach contrasts with the impatience expressed by President Bush and his aides in recent days.

The French president isn't alone. Across Europe, leaders appear inclined to slow the U.S. march toward war. A full 77% of French respondents to a poll this week said they opposed a military operation in Iraq, even if one was approved by the Security Council. That reflects public sentiment elsewhere in the region -- from Germany, a categorical opponent of a war, to Spain and Italy, whose leaders' pro-U.S. leanings on the Iraq issue have put them at odds with voters.

Even British leaders, the most hawkish in Europe, have downplayed the significance of the inspectors' report Jan. 27 as a potential trigger for war.

"I am not getting into ... arbitrary timetables" over how long weapons inspectors should be given to complete their search for banned weapons, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament this week.

The European governments seem to be converging around the view that the inspectors have more work to do before any drastic decisions can be made, according to Jacques Beltran, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

"It appears the British are moving closer to France on this matter," Beltran said. "So is Spain."

On Friday, Turkey joined in the attempt to put on the brakes, saying it would take part in a U.S.-led military operation against Iraq only if a second U.N. resolution authorizing such action was passed.

Speaking to reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital, after a meeting of the National Security Council, the country's top policymaking body, presidential spokesman Tacan Ildem said, "In the absence of a U.N. Security Council resolution approving military action, the difficulty for parliament to make a decision is well known."

Ildem's comments came amid mounting pressure from the United States for Ankara to make a decision on Turkey's possible contribution to a war against Iraq. Washington wants to deploy thousands of ground troops in the predominantly Muslim nation to open a northern front against Iraqi forces.

In a bid to facilitate Turkish assent, the U.S. is now asking to deploy 15,000 troops rather than the 120,000 for which it initially sought permission, a senior Turkish official confirmed Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In Paris, Blix and ElBaradei said they were headed to Baghdad this weekend with a message: Iraq must do more to prove it has disarmed or face unpleasant consequences. President Saddam Hussein's regime has given inspectors full access during recent weeks, but the cooperation is passive and insufficient, the arms officials said.

The Iraqis "are not forthcoming on substance," Blix said. "We need to see evidence. There are many documents on chemical and biological weapons we would like to see. We'd like to conduct interviews with Iraqi scientists in private. The Iraqis say they have destroyed [weapons]. We need to see physical evidence. This is in their own interest."

Blix didn't have much to say about the discovery by inspectors Thursday of empty chemical warheads south of Baghdad. He said he was not yet sure whether the Iraqi regime was correct when it claimed there was nothing sinister about the find because the warheads were included in December in an arms declaration for inspectors.

Asked if the detection of the warheads could push the Bush administration toward a military strike, Blix smiled and said: "You'd better ask Mr. Bush himself. I see from the American reaction that they too want more information. So I am not worried."

Blix and ElBaradei were on friendly and comfortable ground at the Elysee presidential palace here. For political and philosophical reasons, France has a strong interest in keeping the U.N. at the center of the Iraq crisis and maximizing French influence over the outcome. France is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Blix and ElBaradei praised Chirac for helping ensure the unanimous council vote that brought the inspectors to Iraq late last year.

France's legalistic emphasis on seeing the inspections through cuts both ways. In recent days, Chirac has warned Iraq to cooperate fully. He and his defense minister have said French armed forces are prepared for combat if necessary.

But Chirac said Friday that he wasn't alluding to Iraq in particular when he told military brass to be ready for action during a recent address to mark the new year.

The French push for extended inspections is driven by two policy imperatives, one official and the other unspoken, analyst Beltran said. France wants any response to the Iraq crisis to have a solid founding in international law. Only the completion of a comprehensive and definitive search for weapons of mass destruction would put France in a position to advocate using force against Iraq.

But there is sentiment among some European observers that the Bush administration's political capital at home is eroding. Each week that goes by will make it more difficult to justify a war to U.S. voters, let alone the rest of the world, Beltran said.

"This reason is perhaps more hidden," he said. "As long as the inspectors are in Iraq, there will not be a war. The longer the inspections last, the more the delay. And the thinking is that as time passes, a war will be difficult because of internal political questions in the United States."


Special correspondent Amberin Zaman in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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