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New Zealand Herald
Jan 14, 2003
Europeans Give Bush Stern Message
By Catherine Field Correspondent
PARIS - Worried Europeans are sending ever stronger signals to President George W. Bush that he needs backing from the United Nations to secure their support for any strike on Iraq.
As Bush hastens a military build-up that has left some analysts thinking the assault could be as soon as a month away, the mood in many European capitals is hardening.
Country after country are calling for Bush to give UN weapons inspectors more time and discreetly telling him that, in the lack of clear evidence that Saddam Hussein has tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction, their public will oppose any strike on Iraq that fails to carry UN backing.
Greece, which took over the rotating presidency of the European Union on January 1, said it would ask the 15-nation bloc to adopt a joint stance on preventing a war.
"Our desire and intention is that there should be no war. We don't want a war," Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis said at the weekend. "But there is a procedure that has been decided on for the next steps. The Security Council of the United Nations has taken a decision to that effect."
The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has warned that in the absence of proof that Iraq holds banned weapons it would be "very difficult to declare war".
French President Jacques Chirac said: "The use of force is always a statement of failure and the worst of all solutions.
"We have tried to encourage a peaceful solution from the start, in the belief that a military intervention should only be envisaged if absolutely all other options fail, and of course only on the decision of the UN Security Council."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said UN resolution 1441, which sent weapons inspectors back into Iraq to vet its armament programmes, "must be applied. We want to do everything we can to make sure that this succeeds without military action".
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's strongest ally, has emphasised his preference for UN backing for military action, although he insisted yesterday that, whatever happened, Britain and the US would not be deterred.
In a televised news conference in London, Blair said he was sure that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and these posed a direct threat to British national security.
If any country put an unreasonable or unilateral block on a UN resolution backing military action, "we have said we can't be in a position where we are confined in that way. However, I do not believe as a matter of fact that will happen", Blair said.
European governments are fighting a wave of opposition among voters. Opinion polls say 58 per cent of British adults are not convinced that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, while in France, 77 per cent of voters are against any strike.
Blair, meanwhile, is facing a potential revolt within the ranks of his Labour Party. A former party chairman, Clive Soley, has warned that if Blair failed to make a convincing case for a war on Iraq he could face a repeat of the 1956 Suez fiasco, when then prime minister Anthony Eden took Britain into a conflict without public support and was kicked out of office as punishment.
After months of discreet silence, the Europeans have suddenly gone public with their worries for several reasons.
The first is the realisation that the phoney war may soon come to an end, for the Americans are rapidly preparing a hammer strike and, contrary to the 1991 Gulf War, still do not have the "smoking gun" to prove Saddam's villainy.
Some analysts say the offensive could take place as soon as mid-February, after the haj pilgrimage to Mecca.
By that time, the Pentagon should have 150,000 military personnel in the Gulf, and the British and US navies should have a taskforce numbering scores of ships, including aircraft carrier battle groups and marine assault ships. US troops and equipment stockpiles are already in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on Iraq's southern front, while Turkey, a Nato member, is being pressured to let its land be a springboard for an attack from the north.
But another factor that has stoked doubt is Bush's sense of judgment.
Many European commentators warn that Bush risks dangerously inflaming sentiment in Arab countries if he attacks Iraq yet does nothing, as a counterpart, to force Israel to obey United Nations resolutions.
And the dramatic eruption of the crisis in North Korea has caused some to ask why oil-rich Iraq, which apparently still lacks weapons of mass destruction, is considered a bigger threat than a paranoid, nuclear-armed but oil-less Pyongyang.
Some experts still say a war is not inevitable, but they increasingly seem to be in the minority. A more common view is that of Simon Serfaty of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who says Bush considers he has no alternative to force and does not really care if Europe backs him or not.
"There lies the difference between the Americans and the Europeans," says Serfaty, "because this Administration is absolutely convinced that danger is imminent."
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