France, Russia, Germany Urge Tougher Inspections

France, Russia and Germany called Monday for strengthened U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, part of a diplomatic initiative that is aimed at disarming Saddam Hussein without war and is opposed by the United States.

French President Jacques Chirac, reading a joint declaration in the presence of visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Iraq's weapons capability must be neutralized as quickly as possible but that waging war to achieve the objective should be considered only as a last resort.

"Nothing today justifies a war," Chirac said. "This region really does not need another war."

Putin, who arrived in Paris on Monday after weekend talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, said Russia believes the crisis must be resolved diplomatically.

"We are against the war," Putin said. "Both of our countries insist on the need to solve the problem and the crisis diplomatically, and we consider that ... careless action could lead to unknown results."

Putin said he believes inspectors are making progress with Iraq. "Iraq is offering more information and shown a greater wish and willingness to cooperate," he said.

Putin said Russia stood ready to contribute "equipment and aviation" to any efforts to enhance inspections.

Chirac said that all three nations favored a substantial strengthening of the "human and technical capacity" of inspections within the limits of resolution 1441.

U.N. Security Council resolution 1441, adopted unanimously in November, warns Iraq of "serious consequences" if it fails to cooperate with inspectors and provide them with an accurate accounting of its weapons programs.

Germany said Sunday it would join with France in presenting to the Security Council an initiative to disarm Iraq without war, a proposal that has heightened tensions between the United States and the two main European allies resisting military action.

Alluding to the trans-Atlantic tensions over how to deal with Baghdad, Chirac said the debate over Iraq should take place "in the spirit of friendship and respect that characterizes our relations with the United States and other countries."

Elements of the German-French plan trickled out at a security conference in Munich over the weekend. German Defense Minister Peter Struck said the initiative builds on a French proposal to double or triple the number of weapons inspectors unveiled earlier this month at the Security Council.

Struck said it would be presented in the council Friday after chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix gives a new report on Iraqi cooperation.

France and Russia, along with Germany, are among the strongest proponents of a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, a position that runs counter to the U.S. warning that "time is running out" for Baghdad to disarm.

At a U.N. Security Council meeting last week, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin suggested strengthening the inspection system by "doubling" or "tripling" the number of inspectors in Iraq, using Mirage-IV aircraft to increase observation capacity and putting in place a "specialized corps" to guard sites already checked.