Putin Raises Specter of Russia Getting Tough on Iraq

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Tuesday that Moscow, which has consistently pushed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis with Iraq, "may change its position" if Baghdad hampers U.N. weapons inspectors.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the "damning and disturbing" report by U.N. weapons inspectors Monday proved Iraq was in "material breach" -- or violation -- of a U.N. disarmament resolution and made war more likely. It was the first time Britain branded Iraq in material breach since inspectors resumed their work in November.

And in the Arab world, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a vivid and grim warning that war will come "unless Iraq abides by the resolutions of international legitimacy and ceases to put obstacles in front of the international inspection operations."

With President Bush set to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night, the comments across Europe and the Mideast were signs of growing international impatience with Iraq a day after chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix delivered his toughest assessment yet of Baghdad's level of compliance.

The admonitions -- particularly from Russia, Iraq's most powerful ally -- stepped up the pressure on Saddam Hussein and reflected frustration with the Iraqi leadership among countries who have spoken out against an imminent conflict.

Putin's statement "confirmed the fact that Russia isn't defending Saddam, Russia doesn't give Iraq carte blanche for any activity, including illegal activity," said Alexander Pikayev, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Among the five veto-holding countries in the U.N. Security Council, Russia, France and China had indicated they would not support a U.S.-led war against Iraq at this time.

French President Jacques Chirac, in a meeting with the Saudi foreign minister, said that inspections must be given more time, but "Iraq's cooperation must improve," Chirac's spokeswoman said.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer echoed those remarks: "The risks for regional stability and the coalition against terrorism are tremendous," he said. "But on the other hand, it's quite clear that the regime of Saddam Hussein has to comply fully."

During a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Putin said diplomatic measures to resolve the crisis had not been exhausted. However, he suggested that if Baghdad creates difficulties, Russia could move closer to Washington's position.

"If Iraq resists these inspections, if it creates problems for the inspectors, I do not rule out that Russia may change its position," Putin said. "And we intend to work with other Security Council members, including the United States, to work out other decisions -- I won't say what kind, but tougher than the existing decisions."

The comments were in stark contrast to repeated Russian statements emphasizing Moscow's opposition to the use of force. Russia has pursued relations with Iraq over the past decade even as the country was a pariah to much of the world, and has repeatedly called for the lifting of economic sanctions stemming from the 1991 Gulf War.

Pressure on Saddam also came Tuesday from another country that has favored ending the economic sanctions -- Egypt.

In an interview published Tuesday with the Al-Ittihad newspaper of the United Arab Emirates, Mubarak warned Saddam that "the strike is coming" unless Iraq complies with the inspectors.

The British foreign minister told a news conference that Iraq "does not have long to change its behavior fundamentally." Australian Prime Minister John Howard took a similar stance, saying Iraq should be given "some time, but not a lot" to disarm.

Despite the critical U.N. report, the Bush administration still faces obstacles as it pushes ahead with war preparations that point to more than 150,000 troops and four aircraft carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf region by the end of February.

NATO will delay a U.S. proposal to send surveillance planes and Patriot missiles to Turkey as part of the buildup for military action, a senior diplomat said Tuesday.

A closed meeting in Brussels, Belgium, of ambassadors from the 19 NATO nations remained deadlocked on the issue, with Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg insisting on more time before ordering the military to start planning for a limited alliance role in an Iraq conflict, diplomats said.

But a senior European diplomat said there would "definitely not" be a decision to trigger the military preparations when a full meeting of the North Atlantic Council -- NATO's policy making body, takes up the issue again Wednesday.

The Pentagon concluded an arrangement with the Turkish government to permit up to 20,000 U.S. troops to use bases in Turkey for a potential ground invasion into northern Iraq, a senior Defense Department official said.

Turkey and other neighbors of Iraq have been concerned about a flood of refugees in the event of a war.

One of those neighbors, Iran, said Tuesday it favors greater diplomatic efforts to avert a military conflict.

"There should be more room for diplomatic solutions and Iraq should comply fully with the U.N. Security Council resolutions," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told journalists in the southern Indian town of Hyderabad.

The fallout of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq would affect all the countries in the neighborhood, Kharrazi said. "That is the reason that all countries neighboring Iraq are against a military operation," he said.