When Chirac opposed war in Iraq

Paris (AFP) –

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Jacques Chirac, who died on Thursday, infuriated Washington by refusing to join the US-led coalition in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a landmark decision which badly hurt Paris-Washington relations.

Chief UN inspector Hans Blix had submitted a report on Iraq's attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction and suggested that more inspections were needed.

But then US secretary of state Colin Powell argued that Saddam Hussein was preventing inspectors from uncovering the full extent of his arms programme.

Chirac was convinced a war would destabilise the region, and sent his then foreign minister Dominique de Villepin to do diplomatic battle at the United Nations.

De Villepin's address to an emotionally charged Security Council on February 14 was a vibrant challenge to the logic of war, and elicited rare applause from his audience.

"In this temple of United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, we are guardians of a conscience. The heavy responsibility and great honour that is ours must lead us to give priority to peaceful disarmament," de Villepin said.

"This message comes to you today from an old country, France, from an old continent like mine, Europe, that has known wars, occupation, and barbarity."

- Tensions with Washington -

On March 18, 2003, Chirac raised the stakes, declaring: "Iraq does not represent an immediate threat that would justify an immediate war. France appeals to the responsibility of all to respect international law.

"Acting without the UN's legitimacy, putting power before law, means taking on a heavy responsibility," he warned.

The position was backed by three-quarters of the French population.

Chirac's stance strained France's relations with the United States for several years.

But as Iraq slipped into chaos in the aftermath of the invasion, many observers saw his opposition to the conflict as one of the crowning achievements of his political career.