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France Open to New Ideas to Settle UN Dispute Over Iraq - 2003-03-13

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says France is open to new ideas to settle the dispute over Iraq in the U.N. Security Council, but he rejected the latest British proposals that would require Iraq to take six specific steps in a very short timeframe.

In a statement early Thursday, and later on French television, Foreign Minister de Villepin said new Iraq proposals offered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair are unacceptable. Those proposals would have extended a deadline for Iraqi disarmament by several days, and would also impose six conditions that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would have to meet to avoid war.

But Mr. de Villepin also told reporters Thursday that France wants to seek a consensus in the deeply divided Security Council. He said everything must be tried to preserve the unity of the council.

Mr. de Villepin's comments indicated more flexibility than French President Jacques Chirac offered during a television interview on Tuesday. Mr. Chirac said France would veto any new Security Council resolution on Iraq no matter what it contained.

France is concerned that any new resolution, regardless of its exact wording, would be seen as authorization for war if Iraq does not comply with U.N. demands very quickly.

Russia has shared that view, and has also threatened to vote against any new resolution. A no vote from either country would ensure the resolution's defeat because permanent Security Council members have veto power.

But on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the text of a new resolution is still under discussion, and it is premature to say how Russia will vote until a final draft is presented to the council.

France and Russia have come under intense pressure to moderate their views. Although the French president's position has drawn unusual, widespread support from the country's political parties, there has been dissension in his own conservative party. Some leaders, including party head Alain Juppe, are worried a veto may further erode already frayed ties with the Bush administration.

Indeed, an envoy from President Bush suggested to French radio Thursday that a French veto would amount to a betrayal of the United States. In remarks to RTL radio, advisor Richard Perle said he saw no other explanation beside betrayal for Mr. Chirac's threat to veto a new resolution.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has also said a French veto would have consequences, at least for the short term. And Britain's foreign secretary said it was strange that France would announce its vote on a resolution that was not yet finalized.