France, Russia and Germany have announced they will press for more United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, an idea the United States is dismissing as a nonstarter, warning instead that time for inspections is quickly running out. Trans-Atlantic differences between Washington and its key European allies over Iraq appear to be deepening and are now threatening what one U.S. official describes as a crisis of credibility within the NATO alliance.
The Bush administration was dealt another setback Monday in its efforts to gain international unity on Iraq when NATO allies Germany, France and Belgium blocked Turkey's request for military equipment in preparation for possible conflict with Baghdad, a move a Belgian diplomat described as an effort to slow down the rush to war. Turkey is considering allowing the United States to base tens of thousands of troops on its territory and fears Iraqi retaliation in the event of war.
After calling the move inexcusable, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, suggested the three NATO members are in the minority and risk isolating themselves among the 16 other alliance members. "It's 16 to three. I think it's a mistake," he said.
And, he warned if NATO won't act to defend a fellow member, the United States will step in and supply Turkey with what it needs. "We are already going about that task. The planning is going to go forward outside of NATO, if necessary," he said.
After discussing Iraq options with visiting Australian Minister John Howard, President Bush said he hopes NATO will reconsider the decision. "I am disappointed that France would block NATO from helping a country like Turkey prepare. I don't understand that decision. It affects the alliance in a negative way," he said.
Meanwhile, the U.N.'s chief weapons inspectors left Baghdad following two days of talks with Iraqi officials, saying they had made progress on improving Iraqi cooperation but achieved no breakthroughs. Arriving in Vienna, the head of the U.N.'s nuclear monitoring body Mohamed ElBaradei warned time for Iraq to demonstrate full cooperation is quickly running out.
"Overall, we are cautiously optimistic. I think we're seeing a beginning of a change of attitude, a change of environment but we need to see more progress, quick progress in the next days and weeks because time is very critical as we all understand," he said. He, along with chief inspector Hans Blix, will deliver another report to the U.N. Security Council Friday. The Bush administration is signaling if that report, as expected, is at all critical of Iraqi cooperation, the White House will immediately press for another U.N. resolution that would authorize military action.
But rather than a quick decision to go to war, France, Germany and Russia all want to see weapons inspections strengthened with more inspectors put on the job. The idea was put forward just as Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Paris showing solidarity with the French view that inspections should continue.
He spoke to reporters through a translator. "I would like to say that the first and only position of France and Russia, both countries are insisting on a political solution to the crisis. We think that military solutions can lead to unpredictable solutions," he said.
But President Bush Monday was sounding like he was moving closer to war. The White House dismissed Iraq's latest offer to allow U-2 planes to conduct surveillance flights over the country, as in effect, too little, too late. This, as the president brought forward a new charge against the Iraqi leader.
"Saddam Hussein is positioning his military forces within civilian populations in order to shield his military and blame coalition forces for civilian casualties that he has caused," he said.
And, in another sign that the White House is ready to act against Iraq, Mr. Bush told Republican members of Congress "this game of hide and seek in Iraq is over."