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France Still Cautious on Iraq - 2002-09-12

French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin said he agrees with President Bush that the U.N. Security Council should get tough with Iraq but stopped short of endorsing military action if Iraqi defiance continues. Mr. Villepin is in New York for the new session of the General Assembly.

The French have proposed a two-stage approach to Iraq. First, the U.N. Security Council should set a time frame for the return of weapons inspectors. Should Iraq fail to comply, the next step would be some sort of punitive action against Baghdad to enforce the U.N.'s disarmament demands.

But when the French foreign minister was asked whether France would be willing to join a military coalition against Iraq, Mr. Villepin said it is not wise to look too far ahead.

"Today we do not have such a question arising," he said. "The international community is gathered around a clear-cut message which is to combat proliferation and to encourage the return of the inspectors. I did say it is up to the Security Council to determine. I think it is important not to jump the gun on this new phase."

The French seem to prefer going step by step, or at least not saying too much publicly. The idea of a military strike on Iraq does not sit well with many Europeans. But no question, the Security Council is under pressure to toughen its approach. President Bush, in his U.N. address, said he expects it to meet the challenge, otherwise the United Nations risks becoming irrelevant.

Even Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has expressed reservations about using force, told the Assembly in opening remarks that the Security Council has to take a stand in defense of its own resolutions.

"I urge Iraq to comply with its obligations, for the sake of its own people, and for the sake of world order. If Iraq continues its defiance, the Security Council must face its responsibilities," Mr. Annan said.

The Security Council basically has two options for enforcing its resolutions. One is economic, the other military. Iraq is already under sanctions, and has been since it invaded Kuwait in 1990.