French President Jacques Chirac emerged today from a summit of 52 African countries -- including three that hold seats on the U.N. Security Council -- with a unanimous endorsement of France's opposition to U.S.-led military action against Iraq.
"There is an alternative to war," said a summit statement issued in Paris Thursday night and reaffirmed by Chirac at a news conference this morning. "The use of force, which entails serious risks of destabilization for the region, for Africa and the world, should only be a last resort," the statement said.
Analysts said the statement signaled France's determination to forge and hold together a majority in the 15-member Security Council to block U.S. and British efforts to pass a new resolution that could be used as an endorsement for war.
"The French are not sitting back and passively leaving the initiative to the United States and Britain," said Steven Everts, research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a research organization in London. "They are proactive and working to solidify their support, and they're very good at this kind of diplomatic three-dimensional chess game."
Chirac has said repeatedly that he sees no need for a second U.N. resolution to build on one passed in November, and he has indicated that France would use its veto power against such an effort. At the same time, his government has worked to line up enough votes in the council to defeat such a resolution, which would make a French veto unnecessary. Passage of a resolution requires nine votes.
It was unclear today whether Chirac's strategy was aimed solely at turning back a new U.S.-British resolution, or whether France and other nations opposed to military action would propose their own resolution next week about disarming Iraq.
Analysts said such a resolution could be based on an initiative that France and Germany broached two weeks ago that would double or triple the number of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq, intensify monitoring of Iraqi territory by using French, German and Russian aircraft along with U.S. U-2 spy planes, and put in place a "specialized corps" of armed U.N. forces to guard sites already inspected.
Of the Security Council's five permanent, veto-holding members, the United States and Britain favor a tough new resolution, while France, Russia and China want inspections to continue.
Countries that hold the council's 10 rotating seats, which wield no veto, are also split; only Spain and Bulgaria are committed to supporting the United States and Britain. Syria and Germany are firmly opposed. That leaves the three African members -- Angola, Cameroon and Guinea -- plus Mexico, Chile and Pakistan, as potentially up for grabs.
The declaration from the Paris summit appears to place the African nations in the antiwar camp. The summit, an annual convocation, also focused on the civil war in Ivory Coast and repression in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.
In the wake of opinion polls in Britain and throughout Europe that reflect widespread opposition to military action in Iraq without U.N. support, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has pressed for a resolution that would declare Iraq in material breach of U.N. demands for disarmament. British officials have said they hope to present a new resolution sometime in the next few weeks.
Blair was in Rome today to meet with Pope John Paul II, who has expressed strong opposition to military action, and to lend support to Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian leader has been a strong advocate of military action but, like Blair, has been under mounting political pressure to allow the weapons inspectors more time.
Berlusconi's four-party governing coalition has agreed to let the United States use Italian air space, transport facilities and military bases for an invasion, but has said it wants a second U.N. resolution before war begins.
Responding to the French-African statement, State Department officials said that Walter H. Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, met Thursday with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and would meet in coming days with senior officials of the other two African Security Council members.
But Chirac, who has become the de facto spokesman of antiwar forces in Europe and around the world, appeared to be one step ahead of his U.S. and British counterparts. He said at today's news conference that he was confident he could hold together a coalition opposed to war.
"As things stand today, everything points to the need for [disarmament] to be achieved through peaceful means . . . and not by a military route," Chirac said.
Analysts said Chirac was forging an antiwar coalition with such success that it would be difficult for him to back down at a later stage and find some compromise with the United States and Britain. Divisions have been solidified by heated rhetoric of recent days: Chirac has told East European nations supporting the U.S. position to "keep quiet," while Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a French radio interviewer that "certain countries are afraid of upholding their responsibility."
"All of the scenarios I can outline right now have various shades of black," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. He said a French veto or a U.S. decision to initiate military action without U.N. approval would be equally damaging for trans-Atlantic relations. "There seems to be an abyss of mutual misunderstanding."