| A file picture of an unmanned Predator spy plane. Iraq on Wednesday claimed that its anti-aircraft guns shot down a Predator plane which was coming from Kuwait. (AFP)
Baghdad, Jan. 22 (Reuters): European heavyweights France and Germany joined forces today to prevent any US-led war on Iraq which French President Jacques Chirac called “the worst solution”.
But a Russian military source said Washington and its allies had already decided to launch a month-long military strike from mid-February with or without fresh backing from the UN Security Council, in which Russia and France hold veto powers.
“Germany and France have the same judgment on this crisis,” Chirac told a news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder marking their 40-year special relationship as the political and economic driving force of the European Union. “We agree completely to harmonise our positions as closely as possible to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis,” Schroeder added.
Their comments, and the reported attack plan carried by a Moscow news agency quoting a senior military source, signalled a sharp increase in tensions surrounding the possibility of war against Iraq, accused by Washington of hiding banned weapons.
Iraq said its anti-aircraft batteries had shot down an unmanned US spy plane today after destroying a craft in December in what Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff described as a “lucky shot”. There was no immediate US comment on the latest spy plane claim.
US President George Bush is massing more than 150,000 troops in the oil-rich Gulf and has already made clear he is ready to use them, with or without a new mandate from the Security Council, if he considers Iraq has not disarmed.
Bush says he has seen no proof of total disarmament but is hoping UN weapons inspectors will back his view when they report back to the Security Council on Monday and insists the decision on whether to launch a strike has not yet been taken.
Interfax news agency’s specialist military news wire AVN quoted an unnamed high-ranking source in the Russian general staff as saying, however, that US-led operations would be launched once an attacking force had been assembled in the Gulf.
“According to the information we have, the operation is planned for the second half of February. The decision to launch it has been taken but not yet been made public,” the source told the agency, which has generally authoritative contacts in the Russian military and political establishment.
The source did not indicate how the Russian military knew of such an operation, the main aim of which he said was not so much to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but to secure US control over Iraqi oilfields.
Russia has a major commercial interest in Iraqi oil and has made clear its eagerness to exploit Iraq’s huge reserves once UN sanctions are lifted. A big oil producer itself, the struggling former superpower also fears a likely drop in crude prices once Iraq’s reserves are opened up.
Oil prices eased today as dealers took profits from a two-month bull run sparked by the momentum for war, while gold, seen as a safe haven, hit its highest price in nearly six years.
“The war will be short, lasting about one month,” the Russian source was quoted as saying.
US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage flew to Moscow today to try to convince officials that diplomatic options were “just about exhausted”.
France, which says it has yet to see a convincing case for war, has hinted strongly that it might veto a resolution authorising force. Germany, which holds a non-veto Security Council seat, said it would not vote for one. Most of the 15 Council members have said the inspectors need more time.