France Slams U.S.

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France lashed out at the United States, Britain and Spain on Monday for following a path toward military conflict with Iraq.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said the three nations had decided to abandon diplomacy at the United Nations because a large majority of the Security Council oppose their call for war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Despite the will clearly expressed by the international community, the United States, Britain and Spain underlined today their determination to resort to force," de Villepin said in a statement. France "regrets a decision that is not justified today and that risks serious consequences for the region and the world."

His remarks followed harsh criticism from the United States and Britain earlier in the day.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte and British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock singled out France for threatening to veto a proposed resolution that would have given Iraq an ultimatum to disarm by Monday or face military action.

Last week, President Jacques Chirac said France would use its veto to kill the resolution if it came up for a vote and won the nine votes needed for passage. France staunchly supports the work of U.N. weapons inspectors charged with overseeing the disarmament of Iraq and any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons it may possess.

Weeks of intense diplomacy and pressure from the Bush administration failed to convince a majority of the council's 15 members that the time for war had come. The resolution would have authorized war anytime after Monday unless Iraq proved before then that it had disarmed.

De Villepin said he was still evaluating the situation to determine whether to withdraw diplomatic personnel from the region. On Sunday, however, diplomats in Baghdad and Paris said the French mission in Iraq would evacuate the country if U.N. weapons inspectors started pulling out.

In Moscow, meanwhile, the Kremlin press service said Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chirac spoke by telephone and "underlined the necessity of continuing, despite the serious worsening of circumstances, the political-diplomatic efforts in the framework of the United Nations." Russia and Germany have strongly aligned themselves with the French stance for peaceful disarmament of Iraq.

Earlier Monday, de Villepin also told reporters that despite the disagreement over Iraq, France remains an "ally" and "a friend" of the United States and that it would offer assistance after a war.

"We will respond to the demands of our allies," he said. De Villepin added that France would continue to allow U.S. military aircraft to fly through French airspace.

France had also said it was willing to accept a 30-day deadline for Iraq to disarm, provided the move was endorsed by the chief U.N. weapons inspectors. But U.S. officials have dismissed the idea as a nonstarter.