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Gary Younge
France, Russia and Germany harden stance

At a hastily convened meeting in Paris, the three foreign ministers of the anti-war axis hardened their stance against military action and in favour of inspections two days before the UN chief weapons inspector is due to report to the security council.

"We will not allow the passage of a planned resolution that would authorise the use of force," the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said after the meeting with his Russian and German counterparts, Igor Ivanov and Joschka Fischer.

He refused to say whether France was prepared to use its veto to block a new resolution already tabled by Britain, the US and Spain that would give the green light to the use of force against Baghdad.

But, he said, "Russia and France, as permanent security council members, will fully assume all their responsibilities on this point. We are totally on the same line on this as the Russians."

The US government dismissed the statement as little more than the public expres sion of the diplomatic bargaining taking place behind the scenes. "You will continue to hear various statements by various people around the world," said the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer.

The US and Britain are seeking nine votes in favour of the draft resolution they presented last week, which would then force the French or Russians to use their veto.

Both camps have four votes secured and are intensively lobbying for six votes of non-permanent nations who are wavering in the middle. The US regards yesterday's remarks as part of an effort to persuade the swing nations that the resolution will not be passed.

"What you are observing is a fluid situation as different nations make different statements that all lead up to the one day which is the most important day, which is the day of the vote," Mr Fleischer said.

The German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, conceded that the anti-war position may not prevail. "We may lose this argument," he said.

"Anyone who fights for something that is good and right can lose. But anyone who doesn't fight has already lost."

But analysts and diplomats believed that the statement did represent a hardening of the three nations' position from which it would be difficult to climb down.

"They are all working as hard as they damn well can to ensure the resolution does not have a majority on the council, so that they do not actually have to take that veto decision," said one diplomat, who asked not to be named.

"But clearly, I don't see how you can interpret 'will not allow' in any other way than to mean that if it really comes down to it, yes, they are prepared to use their vetoes."

The president of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow, Alexander Konovalov, said the statement marked a warning to the Americans and British to pull back.

"This is a very strong signal to the United States not to put the second resolution up for a vote at all. After such strong statements, however, Russia has lost the opportunity to not use its veto, if it does come to a vote."

Mr Ivanov said that China, which also has a veto, "shared the approach" of Paris, Moscow and Berlin in seeking a peaceful resolution.

Mr Fischer said: "I do not see personally how we can stop the process of resolution 1441 and resort to war." Mr de Villepin said the results of inspections were "more and more encouraging".

But the three warned in a joint declaration that Iraq must do more to cooperate: "We strongly encourage the Iraqi authorities to cooperate more actively with the inspectors towards the full disarmament of their country. These inspections can not continue indefinitely."

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