Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Tuesday that Moscow might toughen its stance on Iraq if Baghdad obstructs U.N. weapons inspectors. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declared that Iraq already is in "material breach" of its commitment to disarm.
Putin's comments marked what could be an important shift toward broader support for military action against Iraq after chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix reported Monday that Baghdad has failed to prove it has given up what chemical or biological weapons it might have.
"If Iraq begins to create problems for the inspectors, Russia can change its position and reach an agreement with the U.S. on developing different, tougher decisions in the U.N. Security Council," Putin said in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. His comments were the strongest indication yet that Russia, which has pushed for a diplomatic solution, might endorse tough new steps against Iraq.
Putin added that inspectors should be given more time to hunt for weapons of mass destruction and that any further action against Iraq should be based on Security Council decisions.
Liliya F. Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Putin's comments were a signal that he wants to maintain good relations with the United States and that if war comes, "Russia is going to jump on the departing train in time."
A relatively quick abandonment of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be in contrast, she said, to the late 1990s, when Moscow backed then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic long after most of his international support had evaporated.
"This message is also for Saddam: that now is the time for Iraq to really prove its innocence, or else Russia will not be able to stand by it," she said. "This message is also aimed at preparing the Russian public for what may come, if war becomes unavoidable. Above all, it is a clear message to the United States that Russia will not veto the next U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq."
Among the five nations with Security Council veto power, Russia, China and France have indicated they would not support a war against Iraq at this time, but neither Moscow nor Beijing appears to have any appetite for angering Washington.
A Chinese diplomat in Moscow, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that although Beijing favors a peaceful solution, it also must take into account its desire to maintain good relations with the United States.
In London, Straw said that the "damning and disturbing" weapons inspectors' report proved Iraq is in violation of a U.N. disarmament resolution and that this made war more likely.
"The conclusion that Iraq is in material breach is an incontrovertible one," Straw said. Iraq "does not have long to change its behavior fundamentally."
It was the first time the British government has invoked the phrase "material breach," which is widely seen as a legal trigger for war.
"Iraq would be making the most profound mistake if it thought it could go on with this game-playing any longer," Straw said, declaring that Blix's report had hardened attitudes toward Iraq in other capitals.
"I can tell you that the mood has changed," Straw said. "People realize that Iraq really is now in blatant noncompliance."
Early today, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin welcomed President Bush's plan to provide new intelligence on Iraq's weapons to the United Nations, saying in a radio interview that "we have been asking all those who have special information to give it to the inspectors."
De Villepin has been one of the strongest voices against rushing into a war, and the French position did not appear to waver Tuesday.
President Jacques Chirac and other leaders once again focused on the need to give inspectors more time. They also urged Iraq to improve its cooperation with the inspectors.
Chirac met in Paris on Tuesday with the Saudi foreign minister, the latest in a number of high-level contacts. After the meeting, Chirac's spokeswoman said the president and the foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, agreed that all alternatives to the use of force must be explored while the inspectors get the time and resources needed for their work.
French diplomats have said that the inspections are "proceeding well" and that the work should be allowed to continue for weeks or months if necessary. The presence of the inspectors has frozen any weapons programs that Iraq may have been developing clandestinely, De Villepin said this week.
In a poll last weekend for Paris Match magazine, 79% of respondents said France should use its veto power to block any resolution authorizing a U.S.-led war on Iraq.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak added to the pressure on Hussein, warning in an interview published Tuesday in the Al Ittihad newspaper of the United Arab Emirates that "the strike is coming unless Iraq abides by the resolutions ... and ceases to put obstacles in front of the international inspection operations." Leaders in Australia and Poland also issued tough statements.
Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in Paris, special correspondent William Wallace in London and Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.