World Answers With Resentment

Times Staff Writer

PARIS -- A world largely opposed to war reacted with both resentment and resignation Wednesday to President Bush's State of the Union address, but leading powers welcomed the U.S. leader's promise to strengthen his case against Saddam Hussein with new evidence.

Bush's offer to reveal classified information showing that Iraq has systematically concealed weapons of mass destruction could open a crack in the resistance by Paris and Moscow, where leaders have insisted on more time for U.N. arms inspections to do their work.

"I welcome this American decision," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, a chief strategist in the diplomatic duel with Washington. "We will examine this American information, and we will give our own information. We'll put it all together and examine the situation. The responsibility of the international community is immense. It is a question of war and peace."

Nonetheless, Bush left many questions unanswered. Once again leading the firm supporters of Washington, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared in Parliament to expand on Bush's claim that Iraq is an ally of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The new push to connect Hussein to Osama bin Laden received a dubious response, just as it has among some U.S. intelligence experts. European anti-terrorist officials warned that an invasion of Iraq will worsen the threat of Islamic terrorism.

The overall response to Bush's speech ranged from caution among politicians to apprehension in slumping financial markets to hostility on the streets.

"Bush threatened to use excessive force in Iraq to remove what he claims are weapons of mass destruction," said an anchorman on Al Jazeera, an influential Arabic TV network. "The U.S., which owns weapons of mass destruction and has used them ... promises to give new evidence of Iraq's ownership of such weapons."

The tone was similar in capitals that are comfortably removed from the fray.

"The speech just confirms what he is," said Carmela Compagnone, an office administrator in Rome. "He is a despot. He doesn't care what the international community has to say. He thinks he is master of the world, and that's the way he behaves. He wanted this war from the beginning, and he will go ahead with it, ignoring any other country."

Even in the heart of Western Europe, many ordinary citizens don't like Bush much more than they do the Iraqi president. Italy illustrates a chasm between voters and political leaders that could hurt U.S. hopes of assembling a coalition in the event of a rebuff by the United Nations.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced plans Wednesday to provide Italian bases for U.S. warplanes to use in a possible campaign against Iraq. Berlusconi has been courted by the White House for a "coalition of the willing." He said he will talk to Bush "like a true friend" during an upcoming visit to Washington.

But a presentation on Iraq by Italy's foreign minister was interrupted when angry opposition senators threw leaflets and denounced the government's support of Bush.

In Moscow, part of Bush's message struck a chord with a government that sees a growing Islamic menace in its war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Bush's most important point was "the need for the further consolidation of interaction of the world community in the struggle against terrorists," said Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin warned this week that his nation might consider military options against Iraq if it interferes with inspectors.

If the U.S. presents decisive proof to the U.N. Security Council next week, that could sway French leaders, who now want the inspections extended for months if necessary, a French political analyst said.

"It was a great speech that rose to the level of the challenge," said Frederic Bozo of the French Institute for International Research in Paris. "The French could come over to the side of the Americans.... The Europeans have doubts about the reasons for war on Iraq, and the risk of terrorist attacks is a supplementary factor for their opposition. But at the moment that the Europeans -- and particularly the French -- see there is no other solution than the military one, that argument is no longer valid."

However, neither the French nor the Russians looked likely to make things easy for the Bush administration.

Ivanov qualified his enthusiasm about Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's upcoming presentation about Iraq's alleged clandestine weapons program by saying the U.S. intelligence should go first to the U.N. inspectors, not the Security Council. The inspections, and every other effort to avoid war, should continue, he said.

Polls indicate that Russians are against a war. Some glumly described the Security Council debate as a charade led by a voracious superpower.

"A mighty nuclear power such as the U.S. is about to lose its head and run amok," said Gennady Abakumov, a Russian soldier-turned-businessman.

"They can no longer see anyone or anything around themselves.... It is not Al Qaeda, or Hussein or anyone else that matters. All that matters to the U.S. is oil, and through it the ability to control the world."

Resentment also permeates the Middle East, where people said they don't need speeches to tell them that war is inevitable. Bush's speech was eclipsed by the elections in Israel, news about the regional economy, even a big soccer match in Egypt.

Solidarity With Iraq

Many Arabs feel solidarity with Iraqi citizens, but a profound dread of harsh times ahead afflicts the region. Egyptian officials lifted controls Tuesday and let the pound currency float. While Bush was speaking, the currency's value was sliding from about 4.65 pounds to the dollar to nearly 5.4 to the dollar.

"The region definitely needs to direct all its resources to economic development," said Salah Abdel Hadi, a pediatric oncologist in Cairo. "But if war starts, this will definitely affect the region's economy. The aftershock waves of war may also lead to a lot of violence and a deterioration of relations with America."

Rage seethed in the reaction of a prominent Islamic scholar in Qatar, which is expected to serve as a base for a U.S. invasion. Anyone killed in an attack intended to expel the U.S. from the Persian Gulf will be considered a martyr, "given their good intentions," proclaimed Sheik Yousef Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar.

"The U.S. administration wants to maintain a grip and keep an eye on everything in an attempt to be a God," he said in an interview with an Arab publication.

Qaradawi is considered a moderate, which helps explain why Middle Easterners and Europeans worry about those with more extreme views. But Bush won few converts to his view that Iraq is the next logical front in the war on terrorism. His relative silence about Bin Laden, who remains at large along with his top deputies, was noted.

Terrorism Worries

European law enforcement officials such as Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's top anti-terrorism magistrate, say the possibility is high of an attack in Europe or the United States that would cause many casualties.

They worry that Iraq has become a dangerous distraction. This week Bruguiere warned that a war would foment terrorism and push more young Muslims into networks of Islamic extremists.

Meanwhile, hundreds of phone calls and e-mails poured into the offices of a new antiwar coalition that is planning a demonstration in London for Feb. 15.

"I think it was a fairly dreadful speech," said Andrew Bergin, a coalition spokesman. "There was nothing new in all the claims and allegations linking Iraq and Al Qaeda. There is no proof.... This is going to be a slaughter of the Iraqi people, and people in this country and in the U.S. are upset by this."

Emotions were more restrained in Asia. China had no immediate official reaction, though the fifth permanent Security Council member has consistently opposed a U.S. military strike on Iraq.

South Koreans sounded relieved that Bush did not repeat his rhetoric of last year, when he declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil." Although Bush harshly criticized the isolationist North Korean regime for its development of nuclear weapons, he refrained from personal comments about leader Kim Jong Il.

"We welcome President Bush's speech in which the president reemphasized the principle that the nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully through diplomatic efforts," said Lim Dong Won, South Korea's top negotiator with North Korea. "We see it as a good sign."

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Times staff writers Maria De Cristofaro in Rome; Barbara Demick in Seoul; David Holley in Moscow; Michael Slackman in Amman, Jordan; Sarah White in Paris; and special correspondent Anthony Kuhn in Beijing contributed to this report.

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