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Why no UN middle road on Iraq? The world agrees with France

UN members confronted the Security Council this week. Their message: No one backs the US Iraq plan.

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For a month, the debate over renewing UN weapons inspections of Iraq has essentially been between a US comply-or-else ultimatum and a French go-slow approach aimed at denying Washington a "green light" to use force.

No country has put forth "Plan C," a credible third option.

As other UN member states this week began weighing in, it's becoming clearer why not: The French seem to have consensus support.

"It would be inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the United Nations Charter if the Security Council were to authorize the use of military force against Iraq at a time when Iraq has indicated its willingness to abide by the Security Council's resolution," South Africa's UN ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said Wednesday, at the outset of a two-day open forum in which non-Council member states spoke to the body about how to handle Iraq.

But, critics say, that depends what your definition of "abide" is. After a four-year hiatus, Iraq agreed on Sept. 16 to the "unconditional return" of weapons inspectors (though not to inspections themselves). But within days, Baghdad was erecting barriers. The latest, last week, were two letters sent to chief weapons inspector Hans Blix declining to confirm plans for returning inspectors that he reportedly made with Iraqi representatives earlier this month in Vienna.

Furor over the letters reportedly "irritated" both France and Russia – Iraq's strongest backers among the P5, the permanent, veto-bearing members of the Security Council – and seemed to strengthen the US hand for a tougher stance. But the French have continued to press for a two-stage resolution. The first phase would outline the new inspections regime; the second, if the Iraqis were deemed uncooperative, would consider the use of force.

Consequences

Washington's supporters say that approach would drain new-found momentum to disarm Iraq. And if the past is any indicator, critics say, if Iraq obstructs inspectors, Baghdad's advocates on the Council will refuse to recognize its actions as non-compliance – and a trigger for the authorization of force.

With that in mind, US and British diplomats appear to be digging in their heels for a single resolution, one that threatens "serious consequences" if inspectors aren't granted full, unfettered access to any site. US negotiators reportedly offered last week to strike the threat to use "all necessary means" if Saddam Hussein doesn't cooperate. But Paris still objected to the bit about "consequences."

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