Chirac offers Iraq an olive branch

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The Independent Online
IF BAGHDAD behaves, and plays by the rules, Iraq may soon be "re- integrated" in the international community and all sanctions dropped, the French President, Jacques Chirac, said yesterday.

President Chirac said he intended to write to Saddam Hussein to say that, if the Iraqi leader co-operated with the United Nations, the "way was open" for all international penalties to be abandoned.

On the other hand, he hinted that France might support, and even take part in, military action against Baghdad if Iraq failed to respect the deal negotiated this week by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General.

Paris would insist that, under international law, no military action could be taken without a formal decision of the UN Security Council, he said. But he added Baghdad should be under no illusions that Iraq would risk "the gravest consequences" if it reneged on the deal.

Interviewed by Le Monde, he was asked if France would take part in any punitive action against Iraq (something it ruled out during the present crisis). Mr Chirac replied: "We would see how things went and what the Security Council said."

In truth, President Chirac seemed to be trying to fly with both the hawks and the doves. It seems inevitable that Russia would use its veto to prevent a UN-authorised punitive attack on Iraq. Mr Chirac's insistence that raids must be formally approved by the Security Council might be read as a signal to Baghdad that France is not rejoining the military alliance against Saddam.

In his interview, Mr Chirac paid tribute to the negotiating skills of Mr Annan. That apart, he said, the resolution of the Iraqi crisis was due in part to the threat of US firepower and in part to French diplomacy (he made no mention of Britain).

The French role in the settlement showed France still had an important voice and useful role in world affairs "when it ... knew where it was going". But Mr Chirac also paid tribute to President Clinton as a "responsible and intelligent" man who would not take military action without "deep reflection".