Plan for peace troops riles US
NEW YORK - France and Germany have devised a plan to pour thousands of armed peacekeepers into Iraq in a move that reflects European opposition to war with Baghdad.
The plan appeared to have taken Washington by surprise, with US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying he knew nothing officially of the proposal.
Details of the initiative emerged as:
* The chief United Nations weapons inspectors began a final day of talks with Iraqi officials.
* America pulled out all but its most senior diplomats from countries surrounding Iraq as European opposition to war intensified.
* A London newspaper reported that the US and Britain were drawing up plans to give Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as little as 48 hours to flee or face war as part of a new UN resolution.
* The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, warned Washington against attacking without a mandate from the world body. "War is always a human catastrophe," Mr Annan declared.
In Baghdad, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the two top UN weapons inspectors, continued vital consultations before their next report to the Security Council on Friday.
Mr ElBaradei described as "useful and substantial" their first day of discussions.
Iraq offered new concessions, including a go-ahead for U-2 spy plane flights and unimpeded interviews with four Iraqi scientists.
The talks, seen as a last chance of avoiding United States-led military strikes on Baghdad, come amid continuing deep divisions between the US and some of its European allies. Germany and France insist peace must be given a chance.
The troops proposal of Berlin and Paris would compel Baghdad to admit thousands of UN soldiers to enforce disarmament and tighter sanctions, German news magazine Der Spiegel said.
A Government spokesman in Berlin confirmed Germany and France were working together to find a peaceful alternative to war with Iraq, but would not provide details.
Washington is indignant that it was not told of the plan. Mr Rumsfeld said he had no information about the joint plan for UN troops, and a senior United States official later said it was "extraordinary" the US learned about it through a news agency.
In London, the Sunday Telegraph reported that the US and Britain were drawing up an ultimatum for Saddam. The newspaper said he would be offered just 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war under a resolution which could be put before the UN Security Council by next weekend if the weapons inspectors concluded that Baghdad was still hiding weapons of mass destruction.
The Telegraph quoted a senior UN Security Council diplomat as saying that Britain would put forward the resolution because Washington "does not want to be seen to need it".
"The resolution being discussed would declare that Saddam is in material breach of UN resolutions, which authorises the use of all necessary means to disarm him."
A British Government spokeswoman downplayed the report, saying: "It is far too early to be talking about that sort of thing."
Russian President Vladimir Putin - whose country has a veto in the Security Council - is also expected to insist on the need for the inspectors to be given more time when he meets Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder today.
Mr Rumsfeld, in Munich for a security conference, said 12 years of diplomacy, economic sanctions and limited military strikes had not disarmed Iraq and the world would know in "days or weeks" if war was needed.
About 10,000 protesters took to the streets of the Bavarian capital in heavy snowfall to demonstrate against the conference and the threat of military action against Iraq.
Inside, Mr Rumsfeld branded as "inexcusable" moves by France, Germany and Belgium to stall Nato planning for the protection of Turkey in the event of a war in Iraq.
France said the US was spurning Nato for "ad hoc coalitions".
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Berlin was still not persuaded of the need for war.
And his Cabinet colleague, Defence Minister Peter Struck, said he had complained to Mr Rumsfeld during a bilateral meeting about the US Defence Secretary's comment last week bracketing Germany with Cuba and Libya for its lack of support. Struck described the apparent jibe as "not a friendly remark".
Mr Rumsfeld said Washington hoped to avoid force, but a growing number of nations were serious about eliminating Iraq's alleged nuclear, chemical and biological arms.
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