By Stephen Castle and Paul WaughIndependent
February 18, 2003
France deepened Tony Blair's political crisis over Iraq last night, when the President, Jacques Chirac, said he would be willing to veto a second UN resolution authorising war against Saddam Hussein.
But the threat, made as leaders gathered for an emergency EU summit in Brussels, led to the clearest indication yet that the Government may be willing to press ahead with war without the international blessing that most voters say they want.
After four hours at the meeting leaders agreed to a carefully balanced text describing the use of force as a "last resort" and warning President Saddam that he has a "final opportunity" to meet his UN commitments. "The Iraqi regime alone will be responsible for the consequences if it continues to flout the will of the international community and does not take this last chance," the document said.
But the text also said the UN inspectors "must be given the time and resources that the UN Security Council believes they need". And it skirted around the vexed issues of a deadline for the inspections to finish, and of whether a second UN resolution is needed before a war.
The diplomatic battleground was clear from the start of the meeting when M. Chirac, who has led opposition to hurrying into a war, took the initiative. Buoyed by last week's report from the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, and by the weekend's peace protests, M. Chirac said: "War is always, always, the worst solution ... That is our position, which leads us to conclude that it is not necessary today to have a second resolution, which France could only oppose." Since France has a permanent seat on the Security Council, M. Chirac can wield a veto in New York. He later said the case for a second resolution was "without any justification".
But the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said further blessing from the UN was not needed. "In terms of mandate," he said, "resolution 1441 gives us the authority we need, but in terms of political desirability we have always said we would prefer a second resolution." The comments could herald the biggest gamble of Mr Blair's leadership. Until now the Prime Minister has said he would only back military action if it is sanctioned by the UN, or if a second resolution were withheld unreasonably. Despite the huge protest in London, however, Mr Blair has showed no signs of backtracking.
The Prime Minister, who was firmly backed by Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, said all 15 leaders agreed that the Iraqi leader had failed to comply with resolution 1441 and that this was his "final opportunity to disarm peacefully". He added that, just as there was a moral consequence of war, there was also "a moral consequence of keeping Saddam there because Iraqis are dying".
Mr Blair said it would be "good" to have a unified Security Council before taking military action, well short of the formulation used by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, who attended last night's summit. Mr Annan said: "Certain member states feel that the time has come for the Council to take action but, for that to happen, it [the Security Council] has to take a decision that there is a material breach."
M. Chirac launched a vitriolic attack on 10 former eastern bloc nations that declared their support for the US position on Iraq, telling the group, some of which are due to join the EU next year, that they had encouraged "hostility" in the 15 EU member states.
Mr Straw told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that Saturday's march was "probably the largest [demonstration] we've seen in our recent democratic history in London" and that "we have to take account of public opinion". But he took a different line in Brussels, saying the marchers represented an "element" of public opinion.
Saudi Arabia said last night that a strike on Iraq, without the full backing of the UN, would amount to a "war of aggression". The Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said regime change based on the "destruction of Iraq" could "solve one problem and create five more".
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