LONDON - France and Germany dropped their opposition yesterday to mobilizing NATO's defensive forces to protect Turkey in case of war with Iraq, while Britain escalated its preparations by authorizing its largest military deployment since the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Turkey's government, meanwhile, said that it had virtually given up on peaceful means to disarm Iraq and that its bases could be modernized for use by American troops.
A day after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented evidence to the United Nations arguing that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction, Europe remained divided in its responses. But yesterday's NATO agreement in Brussels, Belgium, tentatively authorizing the use of NATO troops to protect Turkey, was another sign that the French and German governments find war increasingly likely. They had blocked the agreement for weeks, arguing that it would send a message that war is inevitable.
France, Russia and China, which have veto power in the U.N. Security Council, repeated yesterday their calls to allow arms inspectors more time to complete their job in Iraq. French officials, however, again demanded that Iraq answer Powell's charges. Iraq has said that satellite photos and intercepted conversations between Iraqi military leaders were falsified to mislead the world to believe that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction.
The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said in a radio interview yesterday that waiting much longer for Iraq to satisfy U.N. demands is "risky" and that if Hussein fails to disarm, "we will not rule out any option, including the use of force."
"We refuse to think that war is inevitable," French President Jacques Chirac said in a statement released after de Villepin's remarks. The evidence furnished by Powell "justifies continued work by the United Nations weapons inspectors. Iraq must answer their questions and cooperate more actively."
U.S. officials familiar with the nuances of diplomatic language hope the French president will use a report due from U.N. inspectors Feb. 14 as the trigger for embracing the American position.
"France is certainly giving itself the wiggle room to change its mind, and in the past couple of days may have been working to increase that wiggle room," said Dana Allin, senior fellow for trans-Atlantic relationships at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Even from the French point of view, they have to see it to their advantage to change positions. But this is France. You never know."
Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, after a meeting in London with Prime Minister Tony Blair, warned Iraq that it must make a "drastic change" in its level of cooperation.
"We hope at this late hour they will come to a positive response," Blix said to reporters with his fellow chief inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, at his side. "If they do not, our reports next Friday will not be what we would like them to be.
"We are both searching for disarmament through inspection. That is the method we stand for, and we would like to obtain that."
Added ElBaradei: "Our mission in Baghdad this weekend is crucial."
'Time running out'
That was underscored later in the day when Geoff Hoon, Britain's secretary of defense, announced that about 125 more aircraft and 8,100 troops would be sent to the gulf region in the coming days and weeks, bringing Britain's overall deployment to about 42,000. They will join about 110,000 U.S. troops already deployed.
The movement of the Royal Air Force is the final stage in Britain's deployment; the composition of its army and naval forces had already been announced. Hoon said that while the number of troops will be similar to that in the gulf war, technological advances will give them more firepower and make them less likely to be grounded by weather.
Most experts consider the British military, which trains frequently with the U.S. services, to be the best-trained in Europe.
Hoon said the air fleet would include attack and reconnaissance craft, including Tornado F3s and Tornado GR4s and Harrier GR7s, Hercules transports, Tristar refueling aircraft and E-3D Sentry aircraft for airborne command. In addition to the fixed-wing aircraft, the Royal Air Force would provide 27 Puma and Chinook helicopters.
Britain has ground-attack and support aircraft based in Turkey to patrol no-fly zones over Iraq. It also has ground-attack Tornado GR4 aircraft in Kuwait and six Tornado F3 fighters in Saudi Arabia.
"Time is running out," Hoon told the House of Commons in announcing the deployment. "The Iraqi regime must decide whether it will comply with its obligations or face the consequences."
Blair said war is still avoidable, but only if Iraq disarms completely. Answering audience questions on the British Broadcasting Corp. program Newsnight, Blair said it is imperative that the world disarm Iraq, by force if necessary, because of the lethal potential of weapons of mass destruction.
"It is only a question of time before they come together with international terrorism," he said. He reiterated his desire for a second U.N. resolution, in part to sway public opinion to support a war.
Bases in Turkey
In the Turkish capital, Ankara, parliament voted to allow the United States to renovate military bases in the southeast of the country, near the Iraqi border. Pentagon officials have lobbied for use of the bases to deploy up to 80,000 American ground troops who, in the event of war, would move south toward Baghdad as a gulf-based force moves north toward the Iraqi capital.
Turkey's parliament will vote again Feb. 18 on whether to allow U.S. troops to use the bases, but with yesterday's decision in favor or preparing the bases, that vote is seen largely as a formality.
Public opinion in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, is overwhelmingly against a U.S.-led war on Iraq, and its new government had been reluctant to allow large numbers of American troops into the country. Comments yesterday from Prime Minister Abdullah Gul reflected the competing pressures of domestic and foreign political realities.
"We have to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario," the Associated Press quoted him as saying before yesterday's vote in parliament. "We have to act together with our strategic partner and ally, the United States, for our national interests."
The United States plans to spend several million dollars to modernize the bases. It also has put together a financial aid package for Turkey to help offset losses in tourism and trade dollars in the event of war.
The NATO agreement in Brussels was welcomed by Turkey. France and Germany agreed to allow NATO to mobilize to protect Turkey. The agreement gives NATO members until Monday to raise objections.