Prague/Baghdad, Nov. 21 (Reuters): Nato leaders issued a united declaration of support today for efforts to disarm Iraq, papering over the deep divisions among their ranks over the US threat to wage war.
On the first day of the Nato summit in Prague, two American soldiers in Kuwait were shot and wounded by a Kuwaiti policeman, in the latest of a series of such incidents in a US ally expected to be a crucial launchpad for any attack on Iraq.
Weapons inspector Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrived back in Vienna saying Iraq had promised full cooperation with the UN resolution demanding total disclosure of suspected weapons programmes.
“I think they understand the seriousness of the situation,” he said. “I think we have to try every chance to avoid war if we can.” US forces have little need of practical military help from Nato allies for any attack on Iraq, although airbases such as Turkey’s are strategically important. But President George W. Bush used the Prague talks to lobby Nato leaders to provide at least clear moral support.
The wording of today’s summit declaration, however, was watered down by alliance members wary of eventual war.
“Nato allies stand united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the efforts of the UN to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq with the conditions or restrictions of (Security Council Resolution) 1441,” diplomats quoted the summit communique on Iraq as reading.
A French official in Prague was quick to express the desire of his government to rein in US military plans. An Iraqi denial that it possesses weapons of mass destruction, in an arms inventory demanded by the UN by a December 8 deadline, would not justify war, the official said.
The official was responding to a warning by Bush yesterday that if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein denied in a declaration to the United Nations on December 8 that Iraq has nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, he would enter his “final stage” and reap the most severe consequences.
“That is his own interpretation and we do not share it,” the French official told reporters. “We have never said there was proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We say there are indications.”
“On December 8, we will take note of what Iraq says it has or does not have, and we will see if its behaviour is consistent with its statement. If the (UN) inspectors found something afterwards, that would constitute a serious violation.”
Saddam’s government has so far flatly maintained it has no weapons of mass destruction, putting it on a collision course with Washington on December 8.
US officials have suggested that the ever more frequent clashes between Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners and patrolling US and British warplanes over Iraq could also be a breach of the UN resolution, a view not shared by other governments.
Analysts said that in the air the Iraq war could be said to have already begun.
“What we’ve basically had is the first two to three weeks of the 1991 Gulf War already fought,” said Paul Beaver, a London-based defence and security consultant.