CAIRO – The date is virtually set for a deadly cargo of 3,000 bombs and missiles to start falling on Iraq in the first 48 hours: March 3, after the climax of the hajj Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, a day which, according to American meteorologists, presents the ideal conditions. The logic of war, imposed by America from the start, prevails. From now on, it’s just a question of procedure.

In a crucial Anglo-French summit this Tuesday in the north of France, British premier Tony Blair will pull all stops in trying to convince French President Jacques Chirac that the UN must authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime. This happens exactly one day before US Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to deliver at the Security Council his “smoking gun” evidence to convict Iraq. But whatever the spinning, Asia Times Online has learned from European diplomatic sources that it all amounts to a single issue, and one issue only.

The Bush administration – including words by Powell himself – may in the past have promised to hold Iraqi oil fields “in trust” for the people of Iraq. Nobody seriously believed that this would happen. The Bush administration instead is now promising behind closed doors to spread the riches among American, French, Russian and Chinese oil companies by enforcing contracts signed by Saddam Hussein himself. Saddam had already offered French giant TotalFinaElf exclusive rights to Iraq’s largest oil field, the Majnoon, which may hold 30 billion barrels of oil. Iraq has also signed a contract with Russia’s Stroytransgaz to develop Iraq’s Western desert. And Russia and China want to strike deals to explore the West Qurna and Rumaila fields.

If that is the case, it means no French, Russian or Chinese veto in a second Anglo-American-sponsored Security Council resolution authorizing an attack on Iraq. Germany – which is presiding over the Security Council in February – will most certainly abstain.

Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak maintains his frantic but vain diplomacy “doing everything to spare the Iraqi people from a military operation.” Greek Foreign Minister Georges Papandreou – currently in the European Union presidency – launched a tour of Arab countries trying to sound out possible peaceful solutions for the crisis. The Turkish government, in its continuous highwire act, said that it is not – yet – demanding parliament’s approval for a massive deployment of American troops on Turkish soil; but Turkish troops are already massing at Iraq’s Kurdistan borders.

But these are all peripheral developments. The fact is that the war is being decided in Washington, London and Paris. France – and most European Union member countries for that matter – maintain the position that as long as the inspectors are working on site, there is no risk of weapons proliferation in Iraq. Tony Blair, once again playing the go-between, at least persuaded George W. Bush last Friday in Washington to pay lip service to the acceptance of a second and final resolution at the Security Council.

It all amounts, once again, to a – crucial – problem of interpretation. A second resolution, according to Bush, has absolutely nothing to do with a resolution as viewed by most of the members of the European Union: this would be a sort of ultimatum to Saddam, and if he was judged to be in breach, a definitive authorization for the use of force. Bush thinks that he already has the authorization in his hands, provided by Resolution 1441, because, as the mantra goes, “Saddam is not disarming.” Moreover, he would prefer not to take any risks with a second resolution. American and British diplomats have been drafting a second resolution for days now. But supposing that there is a vote in the Security Council this Wednesday, after Powell’s presentation, Bush will be certain to collect only four “yes” votes to war: the US, Britain, Spain and Bulgaria.

European diplomats keep stressing that the key question, now, is not whether Iraq is cooperating or not: it is to establish beyond any doubt whether Saddam’s regime represents a menace to the international community, and then discuss ways to deal with it. As a Portuguese diplomat puts it, “We have to answer three questions, and there should be no doubts about the answers. Is he a menace to world peace? Is a war necessary now? And is this war legal?”

For the European Union – as well as for Arab countries – war is the last option after all other possible options have failed. As France stresses officially, Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, did not say that the inspectors could not work; himself, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s chief Mohamed ElBaradei, will be back to Baghdad on Sunday for more talks with the Iraqi leadership. Any imaginable Iraqi weapons program is frozen as long as the inspectors are working.

But this interpretation of Resolution 1441 cannot possibly be accepted by Washington because it delays a war indefinitely.

Powell’s case – the ultimate pitch of his career – runs the risk of not swinging most European Union member countries. His pitch won’t swing the vast majority of European public opinion either, because there’s absolutely no proof of the far-fetched Saddam link to al-Qaeda.

To top it all, there’s an image problem. Bush, the character, travels not badly but miserably. And not only to Europe, but to Latin America, Africa and Asia, not to mention the Muslim world. A great deal of Americans may find a connection to his blunt language, stripped-to-the-bone vocabulary, cartoon images and religious fervor. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, his is a major public relations disaster.

The UN game is a very serious matter. France is carefully considering its implications. A key actor in the Middle East since Napoleon fell in love with the pyramids, France knows that it cannot afford to be excluded from the post-Saddam regional new order. It cannot afford to lose its billionaire oil contracts already signed with Iraq. And it cannot afford to see the Security Council dismissed by the Americans in case Bush and his hawks decide to go along with their “coalition of the willing.” Diplomats comment in private that if France, through Chirac, feels it can unify the European Union, the Arab world, Asia and the rest of the world for that matter around a pacifist, legal, no-war solution for the Iraqi crisis, it would certainly defy the US with its own “no” vote in the Security Council.

Germany has a different kind of problem: it is boxed in in its resolute no-war stance. German public opinion remains overwhelmingly anti-war. But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats have just suffered a thunderous defeat this Sunday in regional elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony, the chancellor’s home state. Apart from all the effusive praise to the solid Franco-German alliance recently celebrated in Versailles by Chirac and Schroeder, France is now obviously considering how weak the chancellor might become. But anyway, their position on Iraq remains the same. Ultra-pacifist and extremely popular German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer – who will preside over Powell’s pitch on Wednesday – has already said on the record that in the event of a smoking gun being found in Iraq, this means only that the UN inspectors must continue their mission for as long as it takes, so that Saddam can be made to disarm peacefully.

France is skillfully playing the diplomatic game. It has maintained enough balance to allow it to swing either way. Blair is clearly the US’s ally in the European Union: the issue is how to restrain and isolate Britain within Europe. European public opinion – including the business elite – also regards the American Middle East game plan as extremely dangerous, with the very concrete possibility of a nasty fallout contaminating Europe itself. Britain is already al-Qaeda’s top European target. In the end though, France might even go along with the Anglo-American axis. After all, there’s too much oil at stake. The UN game is nowhere near its climax.

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