Cook tries to repair relations with Paris

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ROBIN COOK, the Foreign Secretary, will try to narrow deep differences with France today over the future of United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq - and in the process rebuild a semblance of unity in Europe's strategy towards President Saddam Hussein.

The task, at breakfast talks in Paris with his French opposite number, Hubert Vedrine, was always going to be difficult, given the gap between France's advocacy of a "soft" regime of inspections and of an early lifting of sanctions and Britain's dogged insistence that sanctions stay in place and the Unscom mission continues its work.

But now it has become harder still after the dispute over allegations that Unscom was secretly used by Washington to spy against President Saddam. Not only do these claims make it more unlikely than ever that UN inspectors will set foot again on Iraqi soil; they also seem bound to reignite French suspicions about Richard Butler, the Unscom chief who is accused of being the United States' prime cat's-paw in the alleged espionage operations, and its complaint that the US - with Britain in tow - is riding roughshod over the world body.

"The air strikes resolved nothing," the French President, Jacques Chirac, told foreign ambassadors in Paris yesterday, in barely veiled criticism of Washington highhandedness. "The UN Security Council should regain its full role... the main lesson of this crisis is that no one should weaken the council, because it cannot be replaced."

British officials are supersensitive to suggestions that participation in the US-led air strikes and its determination to pile on the pressure against President Saddam afterwards have left Britain isolated among its European partners. They admit only to "tactical differences" with the French - but even these will take some bridging.

In the longer term, Britain recognises that changes in Unscom as inevitable, given the practical realities. But, for the moment, it is staunchly behind Mr Butler. "We don't see Unscom as part of the problem and we won't discard Butler," one official said.

Similarly, any easing of sanctions against Iraq will be gradual at best. Britain is ready to close the book on President Saddam's pursuit of nuclear weapons, but is adamant that the search for biological and chemical weapons must continue. And until these are satisfactorily completed, sanctions must continue, diplomats warn.

The most that is on offer is an increase in humanitarian aid programmes - to still criticism that sanctions are piling huge suffering on ordinary Iraqis but having scant effect on their President's militaristic ambitions.

France claims it is working on proposals that combine a gradual lifting of sanctions with tight controls on how Iraq uses the funds it receives from exports, plus unspecified "new measures" to prevent President Saddam from rebuilding his armed forces. But both the US and Britain are sceptical whether these will hold the Iraqi leader in check.