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Gary Younge
Russia and France angered by end of diplomacy

Having failed to secure the necessary nine votes, the co-sponsors of the resolution - Britain, the US and Spain - decided not to seek a vote and vowed to attack Iraq without council support if Saddam Hussein fails to disarm, leaving the UN in a state of chaos.

"Having held further discussions with council members over the weekend and in the last few hours, we have had to conclude that council consensus will not be possible in line with resolution 1441," said Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's UN ambassador.

As the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, questioned the legitimacy of an attack without council backing, Washington and London explicitly blamed France for the collapse of the process, a charge Paris labelled "absurd."

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, breaking weeks of silence, labelled military action without UN backing "a mistake", while his foreign minister called it "illegal."

The dramatic decision to withdraw came as closed-door security council talks on the crisis were due to begin. UN employees were yesterday preparing to leave Baghdad, while countries closed their embassies there and some foreign journalists pulled out. The UN ordered weapons inspectors to leave.

Despite the removal of the inspectors, the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, published, as promised, a "to do" list of disarmament tasks for Baghdad.

The list, required under the terms of a 1999 resolution, does not accuse Iraq of possessing illegal arms, but conveys dissatisfaction with the information provided so far and demands information on a range of issues, including VX gas, mustard gas, sarin, smallpox and anthrax.

Although Russia and China were opposed to the resolution, and the so-called "middle six" uncommitted nations had not been won over, the US and UK singled out France for blame.

"One country in particular has underlined its intention to veto any ultimatum 'no matter what the circumstance'," Sir Jeremy said.

"That country rejected our proposed compromise before even the Iraqi government itself."

The US envoy to the UN, John Negroponte, said: "We believe that the vote would have been close ... We regret that in the face of an explicit threat to veto by a permanent member, the vote counting became a secondary consideration."

France struck back, insisting that Britain, the US and Spain had withdrawn the resolution because the majority of the council was opposed to it.

"During the last day, members of the council repeatedly stated - and it is a majority on the council - that it would not be legitimate to authorise the use of force now when the inspections ... are producing results," said the French UN ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sablière.

Paris dismissed criticisms in public, but privately French officials were bitter at what they saw as a deliberate distortion of France's position in the search for a scapegoat.

A French foreign ministry spokesman dismissed the attacks as "absurd" and said Paris would not respond "to the cheap and easy game of polemics when we are dealing with subjects as important as war and peace".

Diplomats at the Quai d'Orsay, France's foreign ministry, said it was "utterly false and misleading" to suggest France was against force at any stage. "If the inspectors say they are being prevented from doing their job, the president has often said that we would be open to every option, including the use of force," one said.

In Moscow, Mr Putin said a war without UN approval "would be fraught with the gravest consequences, will result in casualties and destabilise the international situation in general ... We stand for resolving the problem exclu sively through peaceful means. Any other option would be a mistake."

The Kremlin's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, said: "The use of force against Iraq, especially with reference to previous resolutions of the UN security council, has no legal grounds."

In direct contradiction of the advice given by the British attorney general to Downing Street yesterday, he said resolution 1441 "clearly states the security council will convene immediately if the need to ensure the complete observance of the existing resolutions arises."

Russia's parliamentary speaker, Gennady Seleznyov, said an attack would cause the world to consider that "the US is a terrorist state that can only be dealt with in the Hague tribunal". US officials said Moscow had declined a Pentagon offer to coordinate postwar issues such as humanitarian aid.

The Canadian prime minister, Jean Chretien, said his country's military would play no role in a war unsanctioned by the UN.

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