MUNICH, Germany – U.S. officials Sunday criticized a French-German proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers to Iraq and increase the number of weapons inspectors to force Saddam Hussein to disarm, calling it an ineffective ploy to delay military action.
The plan, as reported Saturday by a German news magazine, was problematic because it required Iraqi cooperation with inspectors and assumed that peacekeepers could be effective in a "difficult environment," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in Munich for a security conference.
"It's a plan as far as we can tell whose purpose is to block U.S. military action and not make meaningful inspections -- but we don't know," McCain said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Washington, said increasing the number of U.N. inspectors would be "a diversion, not a solution."
"The issue is not more inspectors. The issue is compliance on the part of Saddam Hussein," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press.
U.S. officials -- including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- did not hear full details of the plan during the two-day conference, which ended Sunday. French and German defense ministers were not prepared to brief them, giving the appearance of disarray in the recently reinvigorated Franco-German alliance.
"Rumsfeld was here for 24 hours meeting with German and French officials and no one told him anything. That was not an auspicious start," a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
Rumsfeld emerged from a 45-minute meeting Saturday with German Defense Minister Peter Struck saying he still knew nothing about the plan, but said inspections could only work if Iraq cooperates.
"Inspections are designed to deal with a cooperative country," he said. "It does not take long to know if a country is cooperative."
According to the report in Der Spiegel, the plan would call for sending reconnaissance flights, deploying thousands of U.N. soldiers and tripling the number of weapons inspectors. The vigorous U.N. presence would sideline Saddam, allowing subordinates like Tariq Aziz to "gain more influence" without directly toppling the Iraqi leader, the magazine said.
The proposal would be presented to U.N. Security Council when it meets Feb. 14 to hear a report from U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix.
Struck said Germany would be prepared to send U.N. soldiers to Iraq under such a plan. "We could participate, but we must wait to see how many U.N. soldiers the United Nations would want," the defense minister said.
Speaking at the security conference, Struck said parts of the media reports on the plan were incorrect but he did not elaborate. Aides in the defense ministry said the reports caught Struck by surprise, indicating he had not been fully briefed himself.
"The starting point is the French initiative to increase the number of inspectors in order to give them a better chance to succeed," Struck told the conference, which brought together several hundred top government officials and security experts in the southern German city.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was to discuss the plan later Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Berlin and planned to present details to lawmakers on Thursday.
In Munich, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said his country has highly skilled inspectors and reconnaissance plans that could participate in a reinforced inspections regime in Iraq.
But some experts at the 39th annual defense conference gave the plan a cold reception.
Lord Powell, a former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, said increasing the number of inspectors would not help prove the existence of Saddam's arsenal because "their role is not one of a detective, but one of an auditor."
"It is hard to think of anything less helpful," Powell said of the Franco-German proposal.
"The effect would be to protect Saddam Hussein. It would provide a shield for him behind which he could go about his activities. And it would greatly highlight the disarray between Europe and the United States."