European countries bent on staving off a war with Iraq are pressing a high-stakes gamble that could either throw off the US military timetable - or precipitate war by pushing the US to act without the United Nations.
Germany - backed by permanent Security Council members France and Russia - is working on a plan to muscle up weapons inspections in Iraq with soldiers and military surveillance flights.
Deploying delaying tactics on another front, Germany and France teamed up with Belgium to block proposed NATO military protection of Turkey, the closest NATO country to Iraq, in the event of war. NATO countries were set to take up the Turkey issue again Monday after failing to reach an agreement Sunday.
The "enhanced" inspections proposal, which the German government calls "victory without bullets," is expected to be introduced to the UN Security Council Friday, when UN weapons inspectors provide an update on Iraqi cooperation.
"If [these countries] push too hard, they could force the US to go ahead with a 'coalition of the willing' but outside the UN, and that badly weakens the UN and works against the interest of countries like France," says Robert Lieber, an international relations expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
The idea of "enhanced inspections," first suggested by the French following Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council last week, is already being dismissed by the Bush administration as a "diversion" and "beside the point." For the US, the problem at this point is not finetuning the inspections, but acting on Saddam Hussein's continuing defiance of international orders to disarm.
But with a majority on the 15-member UN Security Council still expressing support for continued inspections, the international buzz around the proposal could at least stall momentum that the US and Britain believed was building in favor of a new UN resolution authorizing use of force.
Professor Lieber says the US stance - that "a second UN resolution would be nice and would make fighting the war easier, but is not legally necessary" - suggests to him that the US is not likely to "waste much time" with an "uncooperative UN."
The dilemma posed by US determination on Iraq means that even as countries focus their comments on Iraq and inspections, their real concern is how to handle their relations with the US.
Russia is a case in point. The government of President Vladimir Putin wants to nurture its nascent good relations with the US, but it also has an interest in perpetuating some aspects of Cold War-era global order - including the Security Council structure that gives it (along with France, China, the United Kingdom, and the US) a permanent, veto power. At the same time, it sees its economy increasingly tied to Germany and Europe.
"Russia has clearly made its choice, and it will stand with the Franco-German option," says Valery Fyodorov, director of the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow. "We do not want to see the United Nations downgraded, or the advent of a world order based on US hegemony."
Insisting that Russia has received no guarantees on its oil and other economic interests in a post-war Iraq, Mr. Fyodorov says, "From this point of view, the Franco-German plan looks much better for Russia. It proposes a solution for Iraq which would be supervised and enforced by the UN - including, possibly, Russian peacekeeping troops - and that is a situation in which Russian economic interests in Iraq would be respected."
Yet while the German position is consistent with the anti-war policy of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, even some German analysts say the latest plan is primarily designed for domestic consumption and is likely to fail in the face of the US steamroller.
The initiative seems designed "for domestic rather than foreign policy reasons," says Frank Umbach, a foreign policy and security expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Noting his own skepticism about the plan, Mr. Umbach says "This proposal assumes that Saddam Hussein would give in and give up control over Iraq, which would be nothing less than a peaceful regime change, and I cannot imagine that Saddam would agree to that."
Still, not all experts are dismissing the viability of the Franco-German proposal - or even the idea that the US might yet be open to accepting "coercive inspections."
"The administration's successful strategy so far has been to place itself two to three steps ahead of where they hope to get the international community [on Iraq], so I wouldn't expect them to be speaking now of toughening the inspections," says Jessica Mathews president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I'd expect them to be out there with something tougher, so that others could come forward with something short of war," like coercive inspections.
Ms. Mathews and the Carnegie Endowment first proposed the idea of "coercive inspections" backed by soldiers and surveillance flights last fall. Ironically German officials rejected the idea at the time, saying it risked setting off a war.
But Mathews says support for the idea has increased as the prospects of war have grown.
"A lot of countries are willing to go very far" in pressuring Iraq for full disarmament, but they balk at war for regime change, she adds, "which has totally different implications for the region and for how the global community operates."
Under the German-French proposal, reported earlier this week in the magazine Der Spiegel, Iraq would effectively be put under a UN protectorate. The 150,000 U.S. soldiers currently stationed around Iraq would remain in place to ensure a peaceful invasion by UN soldiers and to back them up. The peacekeepers then would support the UN weapons inspectors, whose number would increase from currently 100 to 300. While France would monitor air space over Baghdad with "Mirage" surveillance planes, Germany would contribute "Luna" surveillance drones.
German Defense Minister Peter Strück told German radio Monday that talk of NATO's "blue helmets" in Iraq was premature, that the Franco-German plan was still under discussion and not yet ready for public debate. Remarking on US irritation that it had not been consulted about the idea, Mr. Strück said there was not yet anything concrete to share with the Americans.
With a growing list of countries signing on to support the American position on Iraq - and especially after chief UN inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei having failed over the weekend to elicit key concessions they sought from Iraq - the US can be expected to emphasize at the UN that continuing Iraqi defiance is the reason anything like the German plan is doomed to failure.
Still, the US had some cause for feeling it was being jumped in diplomatic corridors over Iraq. "Anyone who follows events around Iraq can see that, in essence, the positions of Russia, France and Germany practically coincide," Putin said before meeting with French President Jacques Chirac Monday. It spelled more diplomatic wrangling ahead.
Meanwhile, Turkish officials reminded NATO that, as a strategically vital member of the alliance, Turkey must be assured of NATO's protection in any war with Iraq.
"Rejecting Turkey's defense is critically important and may damage the future of NATO," says Murat Mercan, the deputy chairman of the ruling AK [Justice and Development] party. "When the real war comes and when there's an attack on Turkey, I'm sure NATO will defend its member country,"
• Fred Weir in Moscow, Mario Kaiser in Berlin, Ilene R. Prusher in Istanbul and Nanette van der Laan in Paris contributed to this report.