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Iraq's Neighbors Oppose Military Conflict

The United States came under a barrage of criticism Wednesday as the Security Council held an open debate at the behest of dozens of countries angry with the Bush administration's threat to attack Iraq.

Key U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Kuwait -- which was invaded by Saddam Hussein's forces in 1990 -- came out against the use of military force in Iraq and called on Washington to give U.N. weapons inspectors a chance to disarm the oil-rich nation.

Iraq's other neighbors, from Iran to Jordan and the Persian Gulf states, warned that a military strike would further destabilize the volatile Middle East for years to come.

Even close friends such as Japan and Australia refrained from supporting America's efforts to win authorization in a new U.N. resolution for a military strike if inspections fail.

But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan supported the U.S. search for a new resolution that would toughen weapons inspections and he urged Baghdad to use this "last chance."

The U.S. ambassador is scheduled to address the council on Thursday but in Washington, President Bush said world leaders needed to "face up to our global responsibilities."

"Those who choose to live in denial may eventually be forced to live in fear," Bush said, as he signed a Congressional resolution authorizing him to use force against Iraq.

The Security Council's five permanent, veto-holding members are divided over how to proceed on Iraq now that it has agreed to the return of inspectors after nearly four years.

The United States, supported by Britain, has spent the past month pushing for a new Security Council resolution which would authorize the use of force if Iraq fails to comply with a tough, new inspections regime.

But France, China and Russia are opposed to any "green light," that would allow the administration to attack Baghdad before its sincerity can be tested on the ground.

France has garnered serious support from China, Russia and influential Arab countries for a proposal only authorizing the possible use of force if inspectors complain about Iraq's compliance.

Hoping to reach a compromise, the United States has been holding secret consultations with the four other major powers, to the exclusion and often frustration of other U.N. members, who feel in the dark on what could be the eve of a major conflict.

In an effort to force a public accounting on the Iraq debate, the Non-Aligned Movement of some 115 mainly developing countries called for Wednesday's open meeting to criticize Washington's position and its handling of the issue here. Nearly 70 countries are expected to speak over two days.

South African Ambassador Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo, whose country heads the movement, opened Wednesday's debate by criticizing the closed-door process. "This can only lead to the erosion of the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council."

Authorizing force now, he said, "would subject and condemn large numbers of civilians to war in order to enforce resolutions."

His remarks were echoed by Arab states strategically key to the success of any U.S. action.

The United Arab Emirates is "profoundly concerned about the danger of escalation leading to war in the region," said the country's ambassador, Ambassador Abdulaziz Al-Shamsi. A military strike, he said, could cause "the total destruction of the people of Iraq, as well as the Gulf and the entire region."

In remarks read by his deputy, Louise Frechette, Annan said that If Iraq fails to comply, the Security Council "will have to face its responsibilities."

Japan, Australia and the EU seemed to agree with the French proposal, favoring a resolution which would send inspectors back without threats up front.

"Iraq must let the inspectors in and fully cooperate in allowing them to carry out their mandate or be held accountable for its failure to do so," Danish Ambassador Ellen Loj said on behalf of the European group.

Annan warned that the world body's "authority and credibility" would suffer if the council remains divided and appealed to members to work toward a comprehensive solution.

French President Jacques Chirac indicated during a trip to Egypt Wednesday that such a compromise could be found.

"We will do all to ensure the resolution conforms to what we see as the interests of the region, the interest of ethics, our idea of international order. If we don't succeed, France, as a member of the Security Council and a permanent member, will fulfill its responsibilities."

Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Mohammed al-Douri reiterated his country's desire for a quick resumption of inspections and charged the United States with blocking their return in order to impose "American colonialism," and control the region's oil.