LONDON, March 4 (UPI) -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Tuesday it was "unlikely" that Moscow would abstain on a U.N. vote on authorizing war against Iraq and strongly indicated it will use its Security Council veto to stop it if necessary.
Ivanov also told a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that U.N. Resolution 1441 demanding that Iraq give up its weapons of mass destruction "does not contain any provisions for the automatic use of force" if Baghdad refused to comply.
The Russian foreign minister insisted that if Iraq is found to be in violation with Res. 1441, "the issue should go back to the U.N. The Security Council must decide what action is to be taken."
Ivanov, who met for talks with Straw on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday, reiterated Moscow's tough stance even as more U.S. B52 bombers flew into Britain for a possible major air attack that could kick off military conflict in Iraq.
Before their meeting, Straw told a key parliamentary committee that Britain had firm evidence that Iraq was still stockpiling banned weapons materiel, some of which it was burying and some of which it moved every 12 hours by truck or train to hide from U.N. weapons inspectors.
Russia is not yet convinced the inspectors have found enough evidence against Iraq and has positioned itself alongside France -- which also has veto power in the Security Council -- and Germany in pressing for the U.N. weapons hunters to be given more time, perhaps several months, to continue their search.
Moscow is resisting Anglo-American pressure for a U.N. resolution authorizing war against Baghdad -- but a question remained as to how far Russia would go in opposing the Americans and the British on a vote.
Ivanov said flatly Tuesday that "Russia would not support any decision that would directly or indirectly led to a war with Iraq." A veto in the Security Council is Russia's right, and "if this is necessary," he said, "Moscow can resort to using this right."
But he appeared to waffle slightly over whether Russia might abstain. In a radio interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. ahead of his talks with Straw, Ivanov said flatly that "abstaining is not a position Russia can take. We have to have a clear position, and we are for a political solution."
At the joint news conference, however, the Russian softened his stance slightly. "The Iraqi issue is one that is unlikely that one of us would abstain," he said -- although he then repeated, "We have not ruled out using a veto over the crisis."
One diplomatic source suggested that one possibility was that Ivanov and his boss, President Vladimir Putin, are convinced that the United States lacks the Security Council votes necessary to win a war-making resolution and that it might back off trying -- thus sparing Russia from having to decide on a veto or an abstention.
Ivanov insisted that "we have the real possibility of a peaceful solution ... We and others will demand that (U.N.) inspectors continue their work on the basis of a specific plan and specific dates."
Straw, however, insisted that if the United Nations continues to make concessions, someday "they wills stop -- and (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein will be left in possession of an arsenal of deadly weapons."
Before his talks with Ivanov, he told a parliamentary committee that the "latest intelligence" suggested that Iraq remains able to produce a host of chemical and biological weapons, including VX gas and ricin and anthrax toxins.
"Saddam Hussein believes that he can once again divide and outwit the international community through a pretence of cooperation," Straw said. "We cannot afford to send him any signal that he is close to success."