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Last Updated:  Friday, 21 February, 2003, 18:58 GMT
Chirac firm on Iraq war opposition
President Jacques Chirac
Chirac is adamant force is not necessary at this stage
France's President Jacques Chirac has reaffirmed his country's opposition to war with Iraq, saying international weapons inspections can still resolve the crisis peacefully.

Mr Chirac was speaking at the end of a summit meeting in Paris with leaders from 51 African countries, who unanimously backed the French diplomatic stance on Iraq.

Meanwhile UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said that the Iraq crisis is entering its final phase and that Britain will ensure that Iraq is disarmed and any threat from Saddam Hussein removed.

His comments came as UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was in Rome for talks with his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, to discuss possible military action against Iraq.

WHO BACKS WAR?
Where the key nations stand on military conflict in Iraq

France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is insisting that force should be used only as a last resort.

"Things being as they are today, everything argues for the fact that the goal can be achieved by peaceful means, that is to say through inspections, and not by military means," Mr Chirac said.

Among the African nations represented at the summit where Mr Chirac was speaking were the leaders of Angola, Cameroon and Guinea - all currently members of the Security Council.

Washington has indicated that it plans to lobby African countries to come round to its more hardline position.

In other developments:

  • Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan says Baghdad is ready for dialogue with Washington if the US abandons plans for military intervention.

  • Half the foreign humanitarian staff working for the UN in Iraq are reported to have left in the past fortnight.

  • The World Council of Churches denounces a possible war against Iraq as immoral and contrary to UN principles.

  • Nato orders that Awacs surveillance planes be deployed over Turkey by next week.

  • US Secretary of State Colin Powell says he will introduce a new resolution on Iraq to the UN next week, while insisting there is already authorisation for military action.

  • Inspectors visit Iraqi sites involved in producing the controversial al-Samoud missiles - chief inspector Hans Blix is to demand that Iraq destroy them.

  • Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is in Texas where he will hold talks with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford.

The international diplomacy continued in Rome on Friday where Mr Blair and Mr Berlusconi, both strong supporters of President George W Bush's stance on Iraq, have been meeting.

Speaking after their talks Mr Blair insisted that force may be necessary if Baghdad persists in resisting UN pressure for Iraq to disarm.

Baghdad for its part denies having weapons of mass destruction.

"We have been trying to avoid war, but in the end I can't avoid it unless Saddam chooses the route of peaceful disarmament," Mr Blair said.

A British soldier prepares kit
Blair believes he is justified in sending UK troops to war

Both the British and Italian leaders are facing massive domestic opposition to a possible US-led war against Iraq and the issue has sparked several splits within Europe.

Nonetheless, Mr Berlusconi and Mr Blair both insisted that international resolve to disarm Iraq remained strong.

Despite the opposition of British church leaders the BBC's Rome correspondent David Willey said Mr Blair appeared convinced that he occupies the moral high ground and will be justified in sending British forces into battle.

US ready for war

This sentiment was echoed by Mr Straw who said: "The United Nations has been trying to remove a central pillar of Saddam's apparatus of terror - his weapons of mass destruction - for the past 12 years."

Mr Blair, who is to meet Pope John Paul II on Saturday, said Britain was working with the US on a second UN resolution that could pave the way to conflict.

US/UK MILITARY DEPLOYMENTS
150,000 US troops in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia - including Afghanistan
70,000 of these are in Kuwait
35,000 British ground and air forces to be deployed in the region

Earlier, the American Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said the US was now ready for a war with Iraq if Mr Bush decided to give the order.

Mr Rumsfeld said there were "ample" US and other troops in the Gulf ready for military action.

The US and Britain - its main ally - now have more than 150,000 troops in the region along with dozens of warships and hundreds of aircraft.





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The BBC's Paul Adams
"The time for action may fast be approaching"



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