Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and French President Jacques Chirac failed today to bridge deep differences over whether, or when, to go to war with Iraq, a disagreement that reflects a general European divide over a possible military strike against the Persian Gulf country.
After a meeting at the French seaside town Le Touquet, Chirac stood by his position that U.N. weapons inspectors needed more time to try to locate and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and that military force should be only a last resort.
"There is still much to be done in the way of disarmament by peaceful means," Chirac told reporters. He did not say how much more time weapons inspectors should get: "I can't put a time frame on it. It's up to them to decide."
Blair has closely supported President Bush's position that time is running out on the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, and that a military strike to end his rule should not be delayed.
Blair did not try to hide his differences with Chirac over the issue, but stressed what he called their "common points." Specifically, he said, both Britain and France want to see Iraq disarmed and want the U.N. Security Council to be the main venue for resolving the crisis.
Blair and Chirac, whose relations have been tense in recent months on a variety of Europe-related issues, have lately found themselves on opposite sides of a growing continental divide over Iraq.
Blair was one of eight European leaders last week to sign a public pledge of support for Bush on Iraq. He was joined by Spain's Jose Maria Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, among others.
France, meanwhile, has worked closely with Germany, Europe's most populous country, to win more time for inspectors. Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor, has staked out a firm position against war.
Chirac does not rule out military force, and has told his military commanders to prepare for the possibility of war. Military affairs analysts here said he was attempting to preserve room to maneuver, and would not want to see France on the sidelines of a U.S.-led invasion.
But Chirac is walking a fine line. Public opinion polls here show widespread opposition to a war -- with or without U.N. approval. Polls also show that three-quarters of the French public wants France to use its Security Council veto to block any attack.
French diplomats and other analysts say France is most concerned that the authority of the Security Council would be eroded by any U.S. action that proceeds without explicit U.N. backing. That is a central issue here because France derives much of its international stature from its position as one of the Security Council's five veto-wielding permanent members.
A secondary concern, diplomats here said, is that war with Iraq could inflame the Muslim world and increase the chances of terrorist attacks on French soil. France is home to 5 million to 6 million Muslims, mostly of North African origin.
Both leaders indicated today that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation of evidence on Wednesday to the Security Council would mark a crucial next step, followed by a Feb. 14 report to the council by the chief weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei.