President Jacques Chirac said Monday that France was prepared to veto the U.S.-backed resolution on Iraq if necessary, joining Russia in saying it would vote against giving Saddam Hussein a March 17 deadline to disarm.
"Our position is no matter what the circumstances, France will vote 'no.' Because we think tonight there is no cause for war to achieve the objective that we fixed — the disarmament of Iraq," Chirac said in a televised interview.
"When one of the five permanent members — the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France — votes no, even if there is a majority (in favor), the resolution is not adopted — that is called the right of veto," Chirac said.
It was the first time Chirac explicitly said France would use its veto power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to block the United States' quest for world body approval for war.
However, Chirac also indicated the veto might not be needed because he believed the resolution might not have the nine Security Council votes needed for passage.
"Tonight this resolution, which carries an ultimatum ... does not have a majority of nine votes," Chirac said.
A French "no" vote would not go down in history as a veto if it were cast with a majority of nine security council members needed to defeat the U.S.-backed measure.
Asked whether he believed that voting against the resolution would seriously damage relations with the United States, Chirac said "I am totally convinced of the opposite."
Chirac said President Bush meant it when he declared a few days ago that "France and Germany are our friends, and will continue to be."
Chirac's statements came shortly after Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia — another veto-holding Security Council member — would vote against the U.S.-British U.N. resolution.
Although the Kremlin has consistently opposed war against Iraq, it was believed Moscow ultimately would abstain rather than vote against the United States.
"The latest (U.N. weapons) inspectors' report confirms that there is no need to change" the inspection program currently underway in Iraq, Chirac said.
The French leader said he would not support military action until the inspectors explicitly tell the U.N. Security Council that they cannot fulfill their objective of certifying that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction.
"Nothing indicates that this path (of inspections) leads to a dead end," Chirac said.
Chirac also said that it would be a "dangerous precedent" if the United States went ahead with a war unilaterally. He added that France would not participate in such a fight.
"We are not engaged and we will not be if there is not a decision by the U.N.," he said.
"The inspectors believe that by giving them the necessary time and means, the objective of eliminating weapons of mass destruction can be reached," Chirac said.
Chirac said his decision on traveling to New York to attend a possible vote depends on how many other leaders agree to be present. Chirac had proposed a gathering of heads of state at the Security Council to discuss the crisis over Iraq.
The U.N. Security Council is bitterly divided over the ultimatum, which is supported by the United States, Britain and Spain — and strongly opposed by France, Russia, China and Germany. Chirac and other opponents argue that U.N. weapons inspections are showing results and should be strengthened to peacefully disarm Iraq.
Meanwhile, a poll released Monday said 69 percent of respondents supported France's possible use of a veto against a U.S.-backed ultimatum resolution.