US isolated as Europe scorns plea for more troops in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Washington suffered a double blow in its plans for Iraq yesterday as France and Germany balked at proposals for an international force while the Prime Minister gave a cautious response to a call for 5,000 extra British troops.

The French and German leaders delivered a cool response to a draft resolution sponsored by the United States, which aims to create a United Nations mandate for an international force while keeping the troops under US command.

Washington is urgently seeking ways to reduce the burden on its 140,000 troops in Iraq, because of increasing casualties and the cost of occupation.

But the reaction from America's staunchest ally was less than enthusiastic, despite a call by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, for another 5,000 British troops to be sent to Iraq to combat the growing security problems.

At a press conference in Downing Street yesterday, Mr Blair insisted that any decision would depend on feedback from British commanders on the ground. The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, has ordered a review of UK troop levels following a spate of terrorist-style attacks. "Unless there is a recommendation ... from our military commanders that they require more troops, we don't provide them," Mr Blair said.

The draft resolution, which was circulated to the 15 Security Council members yesterday, represents an about-face by Washington, which had previously resisted any serious involvement of the UN in Iraq. It proposes the creation of an international force with the formal blessing of the Security Council. The draft also tasks the Governing Council of Iraq to detail "a timetable and programme for the drafting of a new constitution and for the holding of democratic elections".

But scepticism is running high in the corridors of the UN, where diplomats have not forgotten the diplomatic bloodletting of last winter that resulted in the US and Britain leading a coalition to invade Iraq without UN authorisation.

"Parts of the resolution are very good," said one council member. "But many think there are too many vague references to the UN."

Jacques Chirac, the French President, told a press conference yesterday: "We are ready to examine the proposals, but they seem quite far from what appears to us the primary objective, namely the transfer of political responsibility to an Iraqi government as soon as possible."

He was speaking in Dresden after a summit with the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who endorsed M. Chirac's comments. "I agree with the President when he says, 'not dynamic enough, not sufficient'," Mr Schröder said.

Any resistance from Paris could prove fatal to the resolution, because France holds veto power in the Security Council.

More positively, Russia signalled some flexibility last night. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said he envisaged possible participation by Moscow in a force if an acceptable resolution was passed. "It all depends on a specific resolution. I wouldn't exclude it outright," he said.

However, neither France nor Germany closed the door on Washington, suggesting at least that serious negotiations on a text will begin in New York, probably early next week. "We are naturally ready to study it in the most positive manner," M. Chirac said of the US draft.

American officials will push for the final adoption of a text by 23 September, when President George Bush is due to address the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Washington will look for help from Britain, which this month holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council.