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Gary Younge
The old and the ancient world confront Powell with new realities

The answer to the question of whether the world was moving towards war or peace was written on the faces of the permanent members of the UN security council yesterday, following the report of Hans Blix.

The body language around him was precisely the opposite to the last time he spoke, two weeks ago, when his report had been far more critical of Iraq than most had expected. Yesterday, as he suggested that, while problems remained, improvements had been made and solutions may yet emerge, the doves cooed and the hawks delayed their swoop.

While Mr Blix's report did not represent a clear endorsement of either camp there could be little doubt which side of an increasingly polarised divide had been strengthened.

All sides sought to laugh off the tension of the past week, during which the French and German resistance to war was dismissed as the peevishness of "old Europe". The Chinese went further, insisting they were "ancient". Mr Powell said he was representing "the newest country and the oldest democracy", while only the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, sparked any laughter with the claim: "I speak for a very old country... founded in 1066 by the French."

Responding to the report, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, delivered an impassioned speech calling for more time in the name of peace and the unity of cultures that verged on the utopian.

Mr Powell could scarcely contain his irritation. With frustration and without notes, unyielding in his argument and relentless in his pace, he unloaded questions to the security council in rapid succession. "Are they serious? Are they going to comply? Are they going to cooperate?" he asked of the Iraqis.

In what may yet prove a reflection of global opinion, the chamber greeted Mr Villepin's contribution with applause and Mr Powell's with silence.

Immediately before the report the room had filled up quickly, a blur of lambswool coats, bespoke suits and leather cases milling in a last-minute flurry of diplomatic manoeuvring. With the balance of power shifting, nonaligned and less powerful nations such as Angola, Cameroon and Chile found themselves the object of intense interest.

Britain's UN ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, glided from the Spanish to the Angolans before settling down with Syria. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, headed first for the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, and then for Mr Powell. Only the delegate from Guinea stood alone, uncourted and apparently uninterested.

The call to order parted the sea of mingling dignitaries, sending them to their seats and entrenching them in the positions laid out earlier in the morning by their capitals to await Mr Blix's verdict.

It did not come until the end of his report, which questioned Mr Powell's intelligence reports and the need for military action. A conclusion that bought time and made the US and British positions even more difficult to sell.

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