America poured scorn on a new plan for Iraq proposed by France and Germany as a way of averting war last night, deepening the rift with its reluctant European allies.
Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, dismissed proposals for tripling the number of inspectors, backed by armed UN peace-keepers, as a "distraction, not a solution".
The Americans are already furious with France and Germany for blocking Nato plans to protect Turkey in the event of war a decision described as "shameful" by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary. General Powell urged the two countries to think again after Belgium said that it would join the Franco-German opposition to the proposed moves.
France this morning formally blocked the start of Nato military an hour before procedures were due to start and, as expected, Belgium backed the French move.
It was unclear if Germany, which had previously backed French and Belgian hesitation, had also supported the delay in the planning to send surveillance planes, anti-missile batteries and units specialized in dealing with germ warfare and poison gas attacks to Turkey.
As the transatlantic rift deepened, UN weapons inspectors said they were making good progress in meetings with Iraqi officials and that they saw a "beginning of a change of heart", although they were careful to add that the meetings had not provided a breakthrough. But rather than easing tensions among the big powers on the Security Council, the inspectors' comments could raise them by giving France and Russia the chance to claim that Iraq is now co-operating, and that the threat of war should be lifted.
President George Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was unconvinced. "We have seen this game with Iraq many times before, throughout the Nineties," she said. "When there's enough pressure, the Iraqis try to do just a little bit in order to release the pressure." And Mr Bush said: "It is clear that not only is Saddam Hussein deceiving, he's not disarming."
Undeterred by the hostile American reaction, France and Germany are to present their proposals to the UN Security Council on Friday, when the Council is due to hear the latest report from the leading UN inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed al-Baradei.
Britain and America are preparing a fresh UN resolution that would declare Iraq in "further material breach" a phrase that could be interpreted as justifying war unless the inspectors are confident that President Saddam Hussein has really decided to co-operate fully.
General Powell, who laid out America's case against Iraq before the Council last week, said: "More inspectors doesn't answer the question and what France has to do and what Germany has to do ... is read [UN resolution] 1441 again."
Britain did not immediately respond to the Franco- German plan. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Iraq has to change its attitude, and it has to start to co-operate fully. That is what we will be looking for on the report from the inspectors on Friday."
The plan was outlined by Peter Struck, the German Defense Minister, on the fringes of a security conference in Munich at the weekend.
Russia and China have indicated they will support the proposal, which could see a tripling of the number of weapons inspectors, deployment of thousands of UN troops to Iraq, the banning of Iraqi flights anywhere in the country and a clampdown on oil smuggling. According to German sources, it would not automatically require the removal of President Saddam as Iraqi leader.
Pope John Paul II announced that Cardinal Roger Etchegaray would depart for Baghdad today to deliver a personal message to the Iraqi President, urging Iraq to co- operate with the inspectors.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd