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      U.S. Flanks Covered In Latest Showdown

    By Charles Trueheart
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Friday, November 13, 1998; Page A38

    PARIS, Nov. 12—Nine months ago, the last time the United States went to the brink with Iraq over U.N. weapons inspections, the task of creating a unified international front against Saddam Hussein was complicated by the strong reticence of France and Russia to support punitive military strikes.

    Now, as President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair issue stark warnings to Saddam Hussein about the prospect of military action, and as U.S. warships and aircraft are mustered to the Persian Gulf, the striking difference is that France and Russia have raised no significant objections.

    Official French pronouncements in the 12 days since Iraq broke off its nominal cooperation with U.N. teams looking for weapons of mass destruction there have reflected an analysis of the situation that is nearly identical to the American and British view.

    Russia, while publicly expressing its opposition to an attack on Iraq, has kept a much lower profile than it did last winter, when President Boris Yeltsin warned that a military strike could lead to a world war. This time, Moscow has expressed at least as much irritation with Saddam Hussein as with Washington.

    In a telephone conversation last week, Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac agreed that the threat of military strikes was an indispensable element in leading Iraq to respect U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring compliance with weapons inspections.

    In a letter to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine deplored Iraq's rupture of signed engagements as "grave" and "regrettable." The letter was delivered to Aziz by the French ambassador in Baghdad, who was promptly recalled to Paris to underscore France's exasperation; last winter, by contrast, the French dispatched a special envoy to Baghdad to grease the way for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

    French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne Gazeau-Secret said France was dumbfounded by the timing of Saddam Hussein's Oct. 31 announcement suspending all cooperation with weapons inspectors just as the United Nations was preparing to consider easing economic sanctions in return for a "comprehensive review" of Iraqi disarmament.

    Noting that France had championed that review "to permit Iraq to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to reach a relatively precise schedule for the lifting of sanctions," Gazeau-Secret said Saddam Hussein's attitude "threatened to lead to the total isolation of Iraq, for who can support Iraq under the circumstances now?"

    Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said practically the same thing, describing the Iraqi decision as "inexplicable." Ivanov pressed Iraq to reverse its decision and warned that if it did not Russia would not take new steps in support of Baghdad. "If the decision [to end cooperation] is rescinded, we definitely will respond with the broadest initiatives," Ivanov said.

    The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement today deploring the decision to evacuate U.N. personnel from Iraq. It said the move heralded a bombing campaign that would start without approval of the Security Council, on which Russia has veto power. But as the military buildup continued, Russia announced no new diplomatic initiatives aimed at a peaceful compromise.

    During the last crisis, Moscow took an active lead in heading off an American-led attack on Baghdad. Russia promised Saddam Hussein it would lobby the Security Council for the lifting of sanctions if he permitted resumption of inspections. The pledge helped pave the way for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's compromise diplomacy.

    Those efforts marked Russia's return to the world stage and its reemergence from Washington's dominating shadow. Yevgeny Primakov, the prime mover in the diplomatic initiative, was foreign minister at the time; he is now prime minister and has been silent during the current standoff. Russian observers have suggested that the country's need for Western loans, especially from the International Monetary Fund, has muted Moscow's support for Iraq.

    French policy clearly is being shaped by the government's sense of betrayal by Saddam Hussein. Having gone out on a limb for the Iraqi leader in January and February, when the United States and Britain were resisting compromise, the French have found their successful efforts at brokering a military stand-down undermined by the government they had sought to spare.

    France's disillusionment with the Baghdad regime deepened last month when French tests confirmed earlier U.S. findings -- deemed suspect by Iraq -- that chemicals linked to VX, a deadly nerve gas, had been found on Iraqi missile warheads. At a time when France was pressing for the lifting of sanctions on Iraq, those findings represented another nail in France's earlier policy of accommodating Saddam Hussein.

    The change in the French approach does not represent a 180-degree turnaround. French officials still emphasize their hopes for a mediated solution to the crisis, noting that the United States and its allies have yet to come up with a plan for dealing with Saddam Hussein after any military action is taken. Because of these persistent misgivings about the wisdom of using military force, officials said, the French are not likely to join in any U.S. offensive, as they did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Britain is reportedly prepared to join the U.S. air assault, should it come.

    Among the major Western allies, Germany appears to be the most skittish about a military strike. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer spoke at length by phone this week with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who apparently failed to persuade him to support U.S. plans for a bombing campaign.

    "The question is what would a strike accomplish?" said Fischer, the Greens party leader. "The missiles would not end Saddam Hussein's rule, nor would they prevent him from producing weapons of mass destruction. And it would be a long time before U.N. weapons inspectors could return to Iraq."

    Correspondents Daniel Williams in Moscow and William Drozdiak in Berlin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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