France, Russia and Germany jointly declared today that they would block a new U.S.-backed U.N. resolution authorizing war against Iraq, further complicating Washington's hopes for quick passage of the measure.
After a meeting here, the foreign ministers of the three countries issued an upbeat assessment of Iraq's cooperation with U.N. disarmament efforts and said there was no need now to fight a war to achieve that aim. "We will not let a proposed resolution pass that would authorize the use of force," the ministers said in a statement.
France and Russia hold vetoes on the Security Council; Germany holds a rotating seat and does not have a veto.
Their statement, which offered some of the strongest wording to date opposing a war, comes as U.S. forces continue to assemble in the Persian Gulf region and Washington seeks U.N. sanction for an attack. In two days, U.N. weapons inspectors are due to make a crucial interim report to the Security Council; U.S. officials have characterized that report as the trigger for a final debate among council members over supporting a war.
While the United States and its key ally, Britain, have consistently belittled Iraq's cooperation with the U.N. weapons inspectors, the three ministers said today that "these inspections are producing increasingly encouraging results."
The statement said that the destruction of Iraq's Al Samoud-2 missiles, ordered by the United Nations, "has started and is making progress." It also said that Iraq was providing more information on its past chemical and biological weapons programs, and that inspectors were continuing to interview Iraqi scientists.
The statement added, however, that "these inspections cannot continue indefinitely," and called on Iraqis "to cooperate more actively with the inspectors to fully disarm their country."
The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, hinted at the possibility of a veto of the U.S and British resolution, saying, "Russia and France, as permanent members of the Security Council, will assume their full responsibilities on this point." Asked specifically if this meant a veto, he replied: "We will take all our responsibilities. We are in total agreement with the Russians."
The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, said later, "We see there is progress. I do not personally see how we can stop the process of Resolution 1441 and resort to war." Fischer was referring to a resolution passed unanimously by the Security Council in November that stated the terms for the current inspections in Iraq.
The White House played down the statement by the three countries. Ari Fleischer, the spokesman for President Bush, told reporters in Washington: "What you are observing is a fluid situation, as different nations make different statements that all lead up to the one day which is the most important day, which is the day of the vote."
Privately, administration officials had been expressing some optimism that Russia would ultimately back the United States in a council vote or at least abstain, as would China. France has been considered the wild card, with President Jacques Chirac consistently refusing to rule out a veto, although many analysts in France say a veto might irreparably harm the country's relations with the United States.
But today, Russia seemed to come even more in line with France. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain met with Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, but failed to elicit a promise not to veto a new resolution authorizing force, a spokesman for Blair said.
On Tuesday, in a BBC television interview, Ivanov said Russia was unlikely to abstain, saying, "Russia must take a clear position, and we are taking one, in favor of a political settlement."
For the past week, Russia has appeared to harden its stance against a U.N. resolution authorizing war, to the surprise of Bush administration officials who consistently predicted that President Vladimir Putin would not want to risk his carefully built ties with Bush over this issue. U.S. officials have warned that a veto might severely strain relations.
"The wider relationship will be less affected by an abstention," said one senior U.S. diplomat. "There is no question there would be more serious consequences from a veto."
"This may not be the only issue in U.S.-Russia relations . . . but it's of vital importance to [Bush], and their handling of this will inevitably affect it," he said. "It's not that there will be any particular issue that will be linked to this, but it would affect the political climate."
Bush administration officials are also warning that any government that replaces President Saddam Hussein's will likely look more favorably on countries that supported military action against Baghdad than on those that didn't. Russian companies have invested billions in Iraqi oil fields, and the Russian government is hoping one day to collect the $8 billion that Iraq owes it.
The administration has also tried to show its sensitivity to Russia's concerns about the separatist war in the internal republic of Chechnya. It announced last Friday that it would put three Chechen rebel groups on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and an informal Kremlin adviser, said in an interview that Putin understands Russia will gain nothing strategically by spurning the United States in favor of France and Germany.
But he said it was increasingly difficult to argue that Putin should support Bush in the face of growing international opposition and what he called an "unbelievably bad" public relations campaign by Washington. "The U.S. is still the most important relationship for Russia, but it is getting harder and harder to support it because more and more people believe the U.S. is acting unwisely," he said.
LaFraniere reported from Moscow.