AS THE United States drummed up support for watered-down proposals to stop future Iraqi threats to Kuwait, the US ambassador to the United Nations yesterday delivered a scorching verbal attack on France underlining the deep splits among the Gulf war coalition on how to to treat Saddam Hussein.
The US envoy, Madeleine Albright, said the suggestion by the French Defence Minster, Francois Leotard, that the military build-up had been politically motivated was 'ill-informed and counterproductive' and only served to give comfort to a 'brutal dictator who is a repeat offender'. She accused Paris, in the most thinly veiled terms, of taking a more conciliatory line for reasons of commercial advantage.
"While we are talking about politics, there are who have commercial interests with Iraq . . . I think that one ought ot look into that and consider reactions in that guise." Her outburst is measure of Washington's anger at any criticism implying that its reaction to Saddam's was overdone. , as the Clinton Administration continues its build-up of US force, even as Iraqi units accelrated their pull back from the border zone.
Despite the spat with France, the amended proposals from the US seem to be winning cautious approval from France and other Security Council permanent members though not from Baghdad. whose UN envoy, Nizar Hamdoon, yesterday rejected them out of hand.
The new suggestions are a far cry from the exclusion zone for all heavy weapons the US was touting at the start of the week. The word exclusion zone has disappeared. They would keep the Republican Guards out of the area: if these elite units moved they would be subject to airstrikes.
But there would be no clear cut demarcation line beyond which Iraqi units could not stray. Three regular Iraqi divisions roughly 30,000 men would be allowed near the border, provided they were not depolyed in threatening positions.
Washington is confident that it has to a large extent brought the situation, at least for now, under control. This was evident in the announcement last night by the US Defence Secretary, William Perry, who said that the US build-up in the Gulf would reach only 30,000 troops and they could start returning home within weeks once Iraq completes its withdrawal. But because Iraq was a long-term threat, but he said a more powerful force of US warplanes would remain. for the forseeable future to ensure that the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, does not again threaten the Gulf states.
The looser language of the proposal and Mr Perry's announcement, US officials believe, will mollify France which has insisted that Mr Saddam's actions last week violated no UN resolution. However, it will still permit Washington to deal with Republican Guard incursions with airstrikes alone. "We can't have a situation where we have to send troops back to the Gulf every six months."
But the underlying disputes with France and Russia, not to mention Turkey, will be harder to mend.
France's call on its allies not to 'over-react' in the current crisis reflects an unease with the prospect of a new conflict after Paris has tried so hard to repair its ties with Baghdad. France is still awaiting an estimated dollars 5bn payment for arms deals made with Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran war.
France's is also eager to tap into a traditionally lucrative market for its exporters. The same goes for Russia, which can start collecting on dollars 6bn of outstanding debt from Baghdad -- and perhaps win new arms contracts -- once Iraq's oil exports start to flow. Turkey meanwhile has lost heavily from the long closure of the pipeline from Iraq to its Mediterranean coast.
France is also resentful at being squeezed out of post-1990 arms contracts placed by other Arab coalition states, mostly with the US and, to a lesser extent, Britain. "To keep France on board, these may have to be divvied up better," said Geoffrey Kemp of the Carnegie Endowment yesterday. Similar motives The desire for financial benefits may explain the current trip of Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign MInister, to Baghdad.
Mr Kozyrev, who is expected to meet Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president tomorrow, will also attempt to clarify whether Mr Saddam's troop movement south was simply a show of strength to bring pressure on the UN sanctions committee or a real threat. After his visit Mr Kozirev will tour several Gulf countries before reporting back to the United Nations in New York.
He has said that while Moscow and Washington agreed on the need to reduse tensions in the Gulf 'our positions do not coincide on everything. 'We must not give in to our emotions,' he told reporters at Moscow airport, before leaving for Iraq. He urged a solution that would allow a gradual lifting of international sanctions against Iraq.
The Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd yesterday met King Fahd of Saudi Arabia for talks on a concerted approach to the confrontation with Iraq and new measures to be adopted by the United Nations.
Meanwhile President Clinton basks in rare foreign policy approval at his forceful response to the latest Iraqi threat. His lone prominent critics have been Ross perot and Col Oliver North, the controversial Republican Senate candidate Virginia.
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