European leaders, public at odds over war with Iraq

A French opinion poll shows 66 percent opposing war, up from 58 percent in August.

As US warships ply the oceans to move within striking distance of Iraq, a gap is widening between European leaders who support the US-led effort and a public increasingly opposed to war.

Even staunch US allies such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac are on the defensive as public opposition grows and opponents in their political camps speak out against attacking Iraq.

Public-opinion polls indicate a growing sense among ordinary Europeans that weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq have failed to turn up the smoking gun that would justify a major military offensive to remove Saddam Hussein. That is making it harder for European leaders to justify support for action against Iraq, especially as President Bush does not seem convinced about going to war to oust Saddam.

"The political basis for going to war has been significantly eroded over the past few weeks. The Americans have not been able to make a case," says François Heisbourg, head of the Foundation for Strategic Research in France. "If there is no war, then who will have blinked? Saddam will have won, and that's a really big credibility problem."

In the past week, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has met with Mr. Blair and Mr. Chirac and discussed the Iraq crisis. Germany and France want any decision to go to war against Iraq to be dependent on a new UN resolution that would be drafted after weapons inspectors present their findings on Jan. 27.

Britain, America's closest ally, does not want to allow the Security Council to tie its hands on Iraq.

"At the turn of the year, it became clear that people in Europe are simply not convinced about going to war with Iraq," says Simon Atkinson, research director at the MORI polling agency in London. "And if there is no UN mandate, there is even less support."

A new poll of French opinion to be published Friday in the French newspaper L'Humanité demonstrates the continued rise of public opposition to war. Asked by the CSA polling agency whether they would support US intervention in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, 66 percent of those who responded said they were opposed, up from 58 percent in a poll conducted in August. Support for military action fell to 24 percent from 32 percent.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, France is almost certain to support US military action against Iraq in order to preserve its international standing, say analysts. Chirac has begun preparing French troops to go to war, even as public opposition mounts. Lawmakers in his own parliamentary group, the Union for a Presidential Majority, and Socialist members of Parliament have signed a petition against any war in Iraq.

"The government's view is that if the US goes to war with Iraq, we cannot afford to be absent," says Georges Le Guelte, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "If we are not there, the government believes French weight in international affairs will suffer."

Some analysts note, however, that the apparently solid domestic opposition to war may be deceptive. Antiwar sentiment was equally high in January 1991, just before the Gulf War started. But once the campaign began, opinion shifted, with 67 percent of French supporting the military campaign.

In Britain, Blair is increasingly under pressure because of his support for military action against Iraq. Backbenchers heckled the prime minister during a House of Commons session this week. Clare Short, his international development minister, said any military action must have a UN mandate. The Times of London reported that Ms. Short threatened to resign and that most Labour MPs would back sending British troops into battle against Baghdad only if the action were sanctioned by the UN.

The latest opinion poll in Britain, conducted in December by the ICM Research group, showed Britons almost evenly divided on whether they would support war against Iraq. But the same poll registered a rise in opposition from the month before. When asked whether they approve or disapprove of a military attack on Iraq, 44 percent of those polled said they disapproved - up from 40 percent in November. Approval fell to 36 percent from 39 percent. In both months, 20 percent were undecided.

"Blair still has to do his homework," says Atkinson, the MORI analyst. "His situation has changed. He's got to make a better argument. People just don't follow him like they used to."

The death in Britain this week of a police officer during a raid on suspected terrorists and the discovery of the toxin ricin are raising fears in Britain that a war against Iraq could make Britain a target for terrorists. Concern about terrorist attacks, combined with skepticism about President Bush, leaves Britons uncertain of following the US into battle.

Germans are overwhelmingly opposed to war against Iraq. In a poll conducted by the Forsa polling agency this week, 81 percent said military action against Iraq is not justified. Just 12 percent said it would be justified. Rejection of a war to oust Saddam is high across party lines. Members of the Greens voted 96 percent against military action, while among Social Democrats, 86 percent are opposed, as are 77 percent of Christian Democrats and 66 percent of Free Democrats.

Such polls have consistently shown high opposition to war for the past six months, says Manfred Göllner, director of the Forsa institute. This presents Mr. Schröder with a foreign policy dilemma. In his reelection bid last summer, the chancellor said Germany would not take part in a war against Iraq - with or without a UN mandate. His opposition won him the election, but ties between Berlin and Washington have suffered. Making his job even more difficult, more than 30 parliamentary deputies from his coalition of Social Democrats and Greens signed an antiwar petition this week. "Domestically, he benefits from this position. But it is difficult internationally," says Mr. Göllner.

Last month, Germany began a two-year term as temporary member of the UN security council. It will chair the council in February. The challenge facing Germany is how to play a constructive role on the council without losing face at home.

"Germany will become a member of the alliance," predicts Bernhard May, senior analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "How can it not do so? But it still wants to maintain that it hasn't changed its position. Words and deeds don't match."

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