Tue, Feb 18, 2003 - Page 1 News List

... but Europeans remain divided over Iraq standoff

AP , BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

A deeply divided Europe struggled yesterday to close a rift over Iraq and speak with one voice to Iraq President Saddam Hussein.

EU leaders held their emergency summit amid warnings that continued disagreement over Iraq could impede European integration and dilute the continent's influence on the world stage.

Foreign ministers meeting to lay the groundwork for the leaders were united that Iraq must disarm. However, with Washington pushing its allies for quick action on Iraq, differences remained over how much more time to give to UN weapons inspectors.

Each camp remained firm heading in, with France and Germany insisting there is no case yet for military action yet against Saddam Hussein.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin appeared defiant as he arrived, hailing Belgium's stand supporting UN efforts to avert war during a contentious NATO meeting over defensive planning Sunday.

On French TV ahead of the summit, he reiterated the French, German and Belgian position that the UN inspectors should be given more time. Britain, Italy and Spain, he said, were taking "strictly an American line."

But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Washington's key ally, stood firm as well, saying, "Time is running out."

The UN "set out very clearly that this was the final opportunity for Iraq to comply," Straw said. "That involves hard decisions for everyone across Europe. It is only by fighting tyranny that we are able to enjoy the freedoms that we do."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Rome hadn't changed its mind. "Our policy is based on two pillars: the cohesion of the European Union and a strong relationship with the US," he said.

Images of millions of people protesting military action last weekend around the world appeared to strengthen the anti-war cause.

"The best allies of our cause are those people," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel.

In his notes to the meeting, he lambasted Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Denmark for issuing a letter with three east European allies last month rallying behind the US on Iraq.

The problem was not the content but the fact it caught the others by surprise, he said. "It has sent a signal of division in Europe that has weakened us all."

But Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso called for toning down the rhetoric.

"Europe shouldn't be adopting stances that push apart the two sides of the Atlantic," Durao Barroso said before departing Lisbon.

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