Iraq Crisis: France to stay out of military action

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France, one of the fighting allies in the 1991 Gulf War, made it clear yesterday that it would take no part in any new military action against Baghdad.

Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, told French radio that Paris would disassociate itself from any punitive air raids on Iraq undertaken by the United States and Britain. It would not even contemplate offering "logistical" help.

This hard line is supported across the political spectrum in France, from the pro-Saddam, far-right National Front to the instinctively anti- American Communists and Greens. The only dissenting voice has been the former Socialist prime minister, Michel Rocard, who said, in effect, that France was letting its allies down.

Why is France so sympathetic to Iraq? In part, Paris remains determined to build an alternative French, or if possible, European policy towards the Middle East. To maintain credibility with Arab capitals, it feels the need to distinguish itself from the US approach.

There is, undoubtedly, an element of commercial calculation. French firms have been active in lining up possible contracts with Baghdad, once the UN embargo has been lifted.

But French politicians and officials are genuinely puzzled by the confrontational approach of the US, which they see as counter-productive. It is clear that the US will not allow normal relations with Iraq while Saddam Hussein is in power, French officials say. This removes any incentive for President Saddam to co-operate; it inevitably means that the US, and the UN, are placed in a relationship of verbal punch and counter-punch, leading eventually to fruitless military action.

If Iraq is bombed again, they argue, it will strengthen President Saddam. The Secretary-General of the French foreign ministry, Bertrand Dufourcq, was in Baghdad yesterday trying to find a diplomatic settlement acceptable to both Baghdad and the US. French officials say they believe that Iraq is shifting its ground, but they accept that President Saddam must acknowledge the fundamental principle of free access to all possible arms sites for inspectors of the UN's choice.

- John Lichfield, Paris