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TENSION OVER IRAQ Deep rift still divides Europeans



Published: Tue, February 18, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The EU backed more arms inspections, but not for an indefinite period of time.

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- European Union leaders seeking to close a deep rift over Iraq agreed that force should be used only as a last resort, but could not completely resolve their differences on the prospect of war.

Painfully aware that their prolonged and acrimonious split is crippling the drive to give Europe a strong, united voice in world affairs, EU leaders held an emergency summit Monday and passed a joint declaration that was a balancing act between the two sides.

France and Germany continued to oppose any imminent military action against Baghdad. French President Jacques Chirac signaled he would use his veto on the U.N. Security Council to block a resolution authorizing war.

"There is no need for a second resolution today, which France would have no choice but to oppose," said Chirac.

Veto downplayed

Still, today, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin downplayed the talk that France might use its veto power at the U.N. Security Council to block a resolution authorizing war.

Raffarin said the veto was a "very strategic element" for France that allows Paris to act independently on the world stage. But he said that the current strategy on dealing with the Iraq crisis "consisted of maintaining the unity of the international community."

Britain, the chief U.S. ally in Europe, stood by its call for a resolute threat of military action if Saddam Hussein fails to cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspections.

"We cannot be in a situation where Iraq refuses to comply and we do nothing," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

In the joint statement, those who support the U.S. stance went along with France and Germany's insistence that the U.N. weapons inspectors "must be given the time and resources that the U.N. Security Council believes they need."

However, in language likely to please Washington, they acknowledged that "inspections cannot continue indefinitely."

'Not inevitable'

The EU statement also stressed that "war is not inevitable." But Germany, which has fiercely opposed any talk of military action, agreed that force could be "a last resort" and went along with a strong warning on the failure to disarm and cooperate with the U.N. inspectors.

"Iraq has a final opportunity to resolve this crisis peacefully," the declaration said. "The Iraqi regime alone will be responsible for the consequences if it continues to flout the will of the international community."

France and Germany have mustered support from Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg, while Spain, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands back Britain's hawkish line.

Pressure from Annan

Concerned about the impact of the United Nations if Washington decides to invade Iraq without backing from the Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also cranked up pressure Baghdad.

"It is imperative that the Iraqi leadership understand the urgency and the gravity of the situation," Annan told reporters after addressing the EU summit.

If Iraq continues to defy demands for complete cooperation with the weapons inspectors, Annan warned "members of the Security Council will have to make a grim choice."

Anti-war protests

The EU leaders are under pressure from strong anti-war sentiment among voters who turned out in the millions to demonstrate around the continent over the weekend.

Belgium, an outspoken supporter of the European peace camp, drew heart from the protests.

"I salute the millions of citizens who have calmly protested, the best allies of our cause are those people," said Foreign Minister Louis Michel. "Europe of the people, of the citizens is not divided, it is united."

Eastern Europe

The divisions among EU members and nations joining the group were stark, however. The 13 mostly eastern European candidates for admission to the group met today to consider endorsing the EU stance. They were excluded from the talks Monday.

Some EU candidates, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, have backed the United States. In an extraordinary outburst Monday, Chirac publicly lambasted eastern European nations for their support for Washington over the Iraq crisis.

"It is not really responsible behavior, it is not well brought-up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet," he told reporters.

Ahead of today's meeting, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, the current EU president, met with leaders of the European Parliament, several of whom slammed Chirac's comments.

"It was a shame that the atmosphere was soured by the gratuitous ... statements by Mr. Chirac," said British Liberal Democrat leader Graham Watson. "On matters like this we need the widest possible consensus."

In Warsaw, Poland's deputy foreign minister Adam Rotfeld called Chirac's comments "harmful and unnecessary."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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