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Putin Calls Bush, Sides with France and Germany in Resisting War
By Steve Holland and Hassan Hafidh
WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD - Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush in a telephone call Thursday that the key to future action on Iraq would be found in next Monday's report by U.N. arms inspectors, joining leaders of China, Canada, France and Germany in opposing any rush to war.
The spokesmen for the big powers said U.N. weapons inspectors should be allowed to continue efforts to disarm Iraq by peaceful means. Washington dismissed the objections, saying it would find other supporters if it decided to go to war.
"I don't think we'll have to worry about going it alone," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington after talks with Britain's supportive Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
He also said it was an "open question" whether Washington would seek a further U.N. resolution to authorize the use of force to disarm Baghdad. Other U.S. officials make clear they see no need -- and given the French, Russian and Chinese veto powers on the Security Council, they are unlikely to get one.
U.N. arms inspectors have spent two months searching for evidence of nuclear, chemical and biological arms that Iraq denies having. They are due to present their findings to the Security Council but have already said they need more time to finish their work.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder vowed he and French President Jacques Chirac would do all they could to avert war. "War may never be considered unavoidable," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said there were no grounds for force at the moment. "There is still political and diplomatic leeway to resolve the Iraq issue," he said.
China said its position was "extremely close" to France's.
Washington accuses Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of hiding banned weapons since the 1991 Gulf War and has threatened to attack if Baghdad does not disarm in line with 12 years of U.N. resolutions, the last of them passed in November.
The stand taken by Paris, Beijing and Moscow means a majority of the five veto-wielding permanent members on the Security Council are against war. The other two permanent members are the United States and its strongest ally Britain.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissed France and Germany's opposition saying it was "their prerogative...to be on the sideline" if they so chose.
Fleischer said other countries that might support a U.S.-led strike on Iraq included Britain, Italy, Spain, eastern European nations and Australia, which dispatched a troop ship toward the Gulf Thursday in case they are needed.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, on a trip to Russia, said Washington did not believe it needed a second Security Council resolution before taking military action.
"We believe there is sufficient authority to move now without a second resolution," he told Ekho Moskvy radio. But he added: "It is appropriate for me to say that President Bush has made no decision about the use of military force."
As the United States and Britain continued their troop build-up in the Gulf, Middle East nations met in Istanbul on Thursday to discuss ways of averting a conflict.
The talks gathered together foreign ministers and diplomats from Iraq's neighbors -- Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria -- along with regional heavyweight Egypt.
Iraq urged Turkey to reject U.S. requests for military help in any attack. The United States is looking to Turkey for use of its air bases and frontiers in the event of military action, especially a second front in northern Iraq. Ankara opposes war but may be hard pressed to deny help to its closest NATO ally.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan al-Muashar said Iraq must comply with U.N. inspections if war was to be averted.
"We are sending a strong signal to Baghdad that this is about the region, not just about Iraq," he said. "This is not a matter of being bullied by the United States."
In Iraq, U.N. experts continued their hunt for banned weapons as a local newspaper warned that U.S. troops faced a fate worse than the September 11 attacks if they attacked.
"The events of September 11 will be a picnic compared with what would happen to America if it commits aggression against Iraq," the Babel paper of Saddam's son Uday said.
The U.N. inspectors visited at least five sites Thursday, including food stores, a fibreglass plant, a missile complex and a university. A row continued over a visit by inspectors to a mosque Monday, with a senior Iraqi official dismissing a U.N. explanation that they had gone there merely as tourists.