France, Russia, Germany Issue Anti-War Statement

France, Russia and Germany called for the Security Council to set a timetable for Saddam Hussein to disarm but issued a strong statement Saturday rejecting a war on Iraq, a day before President Bush and his top allies backing military action were to meet.

France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said his country would accept "a very tight timetable" for Iraqi disarmament -- but not an ultimatum that would automatically trigger war, as Washington wants. Still, he said, war appears increasingly inevitable.

"It is difficult to imagine what could stop this machine," he told France 2 television, before adding "one does not have the right to be discouraged."

France, Russia and Germany have led opposition to military action against Iraq and blocked a U.S. attempt to set a deadline for Saddam to disarm or face war.

With some 250,000 U.S. and British troops in the Persian Gulf ready to attack Iraq, President Bush meets with prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain -- his top proponents of military action against Saddam -- on Sunday in the Azores islands to plan their next step in the standoff.

The joint declaration was issued by France and its allies in a clear move to present their case against war before the Azores summit.

"We reaffirm that nothing justifies in the present circumstances putting a stop to the inspection process and resorting to the use of force," said the declaration, issued by the Foreign Ministry in Paris. "The use of force can only be a last resort."

The three nations called for Security Council foreign ministers to meet on Tuesday to focus on "disarmament priorities and draw up a strict and realistic timetable" to certify Iraq free of alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix is to present his latest report on Iraqi disarmament on Monday and lay out his plans for upcoming inspections. He is expected to present the U.N. Security Council with his list of top priority questions that Iraq must answer about its chemical, biological and missile programs as early as Tuesday.

The three nations said previous reports by Blix and the chief nuclear inspector, Mohamed El Baradei, indicated that inspections were producing results. "The disarmament of Iraq has started," the declaration said. "Everything indicates that it can be completed quickly."

The declaration was agreed upon Saturday by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Russia, a German foreign ministry spokeswoman said. The three were in telephone contact with one another, she said.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov told the Interfax news agency that Blix's report should outline "the key remaining tasks in the area of disarmament," criteria that could be used to assess Iraq's cooperation with inspectors in the future.

He said the inspections "should not have a limitless character" and pointed to a 120-day period outlined in a joint Russian-French-German memorandum submitted earlier to the Security Council.