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France Pushes Call for More UN Weapons Inspectors in Iraq - 2003-02-07

France has called for more U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq as it continues to press for a peaceful solution to the Iraqi weapons issue. But the French government is keeping its options open, a day after Secretary of State Colin Powell made his case for military intervention.

In an interview on Europe-One radio, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said Secretary of State Colin Powell had provided indications and suspicions that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, but no convincing proof.

Mr. de Villepin also dismissed White House suggestions France was increasingly isolated on the Security Council by maintaining that a diplomatic, U.N.-mediated solution was still possible for Baghdad.

On the contrary, Mr. de Villepin said, a large majority of the Security Council wanted U.N. weapons inspections to continue. He said the French position was well received by most members.

France and Germany have been increasingly criticized by the United States for opposing, for now, at least, war against Iraq. The two countries were not invited to sign a letter by eight European countries supporting the position of the United States.

Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sparked anger in France by referring to Paris and Berlin as old Europe.

French reaction to Mr. Powell's presentation to the Security Council has been mixed, but largely negative. One radio survey Thursday found more than 80 percent of French against a possible war on Iraq.

Several French newspapers also expressed skepticism about Mr. Powell's arguments that Iraq continued to hide weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, Berthelemy Courmont, an analyst at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, says France is keeping its options open.

"We're still playing on both sides, if I can explain that way. But it doesn't mean that we're ready to fight. It's just that we consider that we cannot exclude any option," he said.

Another analyst in Paris, Francois Heisbourg, also believes France has adopted a more flexible stance since last month - when Mr. de Villepin suggested Paris might veto a possible U.N. resolution on war against Baghdad. But Mr. Heisbourg doubts France would join any future military campaign.

"Political leadership and popular opinion are pretty much dead set against a war here and now. And my expectation is the French will not be part of this unless some miracle occurs, and the Americans agree to extend the mandate [for] the work of the inspectors," he said.

Overall, Mr. Heisbourg said, he has never seen the European Union, or NATO in such disunity and disarray as over the question of Iraq.