| A young girl leans against her father during Friday prayers in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Baghdad, Jan. 10 (Reuters): Europe moved to stay America’s hand over Iraq today, as top officials spoke out against a rush to war on the basis of inconclusive weapons inspections.
“Without proof, it would be very difficult to start a war,” EU foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana said. As US President George W. Bush continued to mobilise his forces and met Iraqi Opposition leaders, one of President Saddam Hussein’s main Iraqi foes said an invasion could destabilise West Asia and warned that the sort of massive occupying force Washington envisages would face popular armed resistance.
“We reject the idea of an invasion and occupation of Iraqi territory,” said Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim.
After UN inspectors told the Security Council yesterday they had found no “smoking gun” to challenge Iraq’s insistence it has no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, Washington made clear it still felt Baghdad was defying the UN.
With the world’s eyes turning to North Korea, which has admitted developing nuclear weapons and pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty today, US officials insisted Iraq posed a major threat, however little the inspections found.
Chief inspector Hans Blix told the Security Council Iraq had “failed to answer a great many questions”. The US said if Iraq continued to deceive it would again be in “material breach” of Council resolutions — language that could mean war.
In Iraq, UN experts visited three sites today, including a rocket fuel plant which Britain has alleged may be developing missiles to carry chemical or germ warheads.
The US is doubling its 60,000-strong force in the Gulf. The Pentagon has told a further 7,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to get ready, the Marine Corps said.
But EU Commission president Romano Prodi called for calm: “War is not and must not be inevitable,” he said in Greece, which plans to lead an EU peace mission to Arab capitals soon.
The 15 EU nations are sharply divided over Iraq. Britain is mobilising its forces — including a big naval landing force led by flagship carrier Ark Royal — alongside the Americans despite grave doubts within Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour party.
The bloc’s other main military power, France, is cooler, insisting on an international mandate for any war. Germany, the biggest economy, opposes outright the idea of attacking Iraq.
“Inspections should continue and for that reason there are no grounds for military action,” Berlin’s ambassador to the UN, Gunter Pleuger, said in New York.
Britain’s UN envoy, too, said there was no undue focus on Blix’s next report to the Council on January 27.
Washington has little need of European military assistance and has made clear it is willing to fight alone if need be, despite agreeing to seek UN backing last autumn.