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Since 1st March, 1999
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US allies in last-gasp dash to avert war

Munich/Baghdad, Feb. 9 (Reuters): Germany said today it would put a last-ditch Franco-German peace plan on Iraq to the UN Security Council on Friday when arms inspectors present a report that could trigger a US-led war.

German defence minister Peter Struck outlined the plan to send UN troops to Iraq as top UN inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei held a crucial second day of talks in Baghdad. Blix and ElBaradei report to the Council on Friday.

“We hope that the initiative will be taken up positively in the Security Council on February 14,” Struck told Germany’s Phoenix television on the fringes of a major security conference in the German city of Munich.

But the French foreign ministry said later there is no secret Franco-German plan to disarm Iraq, only proposals made to the UN Security Council by foreign minister Dominique de Villepin to intensify weapons inspections. “France confirms that there is no secret Franco-German plan for the disarmament of Iraq,” foreign ministry deputy spokesman Bernard Valero said by telephone.

“There are, on the other hand, known proposals which were announced publicly by the foreign minister in the Security Council on February 5, aimed at reinforcing the United Nations inspection programmes.”

Russia, which like France has opposed any US-led rush to war to disarm Iraq and can veto any Security Council resolution authorising military force, said it would back the plan.

Struck said the plan included sending UN troops to Iraq to back up arms inspections that resumed in November to hunt and destroy Iraq’s alleged nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programmes. He said Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder would discuss the idea with Russian President Vladimir Putin at talks in Berlin today. Diplomatic sources said Schroeder was also due to meet French President Jacques Chirac.

US-European divisions on Iraq have emerged also within Nato, prompting US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld to issue a sharp rebuke to France, Germany and Belgium at the weekend, branding their behaviour “inexcusable”.

The NATO divisions stem from a proposal to defend alliance member Turkey in the event of war in neighbouring Iraq. Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel said today his country would block any such defence preparations.

France, Germany and Belgium — which under NATO procedures governing the alliance’s 19 members have until 0900 GMT tomorrow to raise objections — argue that preparations to defend Turkey could undermine diplomatic efforts to avert a conflict.

At the talks in Baghdad, Iraq handed over more documents to chief weapons inspector Blix and ElBaradei, head of the UN nuclear watchdog, a UN source said, adding that they related to the nuclear field. The inspectors met vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan after talks with Iraqi arms experts, Iraqi officials said. ElBaradei had said he hoped to meet President Saddam Hussein, but Baghdad said no such meeting was scheduled.

Blix and ElBaradei were due to hold a news conference today and leave Baghdad tomorrow.

French and German reticence over war has infuriated Washington, prompting Rumsfeld to label them “old Europe” and say they were isolated in a continent whose centre of gravity was shifting east to embrace US allies in central Europe.

German government sources said their initiative was built on proposals made by French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin this week to intensify weapons inspections in Iraq and offer French reconnaissance planes to support them.

Germany’s news magazine Der Spiegel said the scheme could involve thousands of UN troops. It said the idea originated in Schroeder’s office and that Berlin and Paris had been working on the details of the initiative in secret talks since early this year.

Rumsfeld told the Munich conference yesterday that 12 years of diplomacy, economic sanctions and limited military strikes since the 1991 Gulf War had failed to disarm Iraq and the world would know in “days or weeks” if war was needed.

Friday’s report by Blix and ElBaradei to the UN Security Council will follow one they made last month. A critical report could start the countdown for a US-led invasion of Iraq.

Iraq relented last week on private interviews of Iraqi scientists, allowing the inspectors to carry out such questioning.

But it has so far given little on the issue of high-altitude overflights by U-2 spyplanes, saying it could not guarantee their safety while US and British warplanes patrol two ”no-fly” zones in Iraqi skies.

Under the shadow of looming war in Iraq, two million pilgrims prepared to start the five-day Haj ritual at Islam’s holiest site in Saudi Arabia, with many expressing deep anger at the US.

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