Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi sought to calm European anger yesterday over his description of states that opposed the US-led war to oust former president Saddam Hussein as "spectators."
But several EU leaders said his comment, on a visit to Rome on Thursday, were unhelpful ahead of a first meeting at which the 25-nation bloc is due to offer him a modest aid package as it seeks a fresh start after bitter divisions over Iraq.
"What I said is that history is history, past is past. We need to start operations, to start a new chapter and look to the future. We definitely want to forge a positive alliance with Europe," Allawi told reporters after a breakfast meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Brussels.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, one of the European critics of the war, told reporters: "I don't like the expression `spectator states' at all. I don't understand it, and if I do understand it right, I don't like it at all."
Meanwhile, Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, denied that French President Jacques Chirac was boycotting the lunch because of bad relations with Baghdad.
"That has other reasons," he said when asked about Chirac's planned early departure from an EU summit, missing the Allawi lunch to fly to the United Arab Emirates to express condolences for the death on Tuesday of its founding leader, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan.
France managed to get a phrase explicitly welcoming Allawi deleted from the draft summit statement, diplomats said.
Instead the text said: "The European Council met Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi to discuss the situation in Iraq and reiterated its strong support for the political process in Iraq and the Iraqi interim government."
"I think that what we should do is look towards the future, forget about the past," Bot told reporters on arrival for the second day of the EU summit.
"What is very important is that we give off a signal that we are interested in Iraq, that we are willing to help to [re]construct the country," he said, underlining a newly-agreed EU package of financial and other support.
"It is a very positive package. What is important now is that we start this dialogue and continue it on the highest possible level. I have full confidence that we will have a good meeting today," he added.
The EU aid package is relatively small, consisting of 16.5 million euros (US$21 million) in financing for elections due in January, support for developing the justice system and help for a UN protection force for the elections.
The EU support for Allawi was meant to heal deep rifts within the bloc over the Iraq war and signal a new start in cooperation with the US after President George W. Bush's re-election on Tuesday.
In a draft statement seen by reporters, the EU leaders signalled their will to improve relations with Washington.
"The EU ... looks forward to working very closely with President Bush and his new administration to combine efforts, including in multilateral institutions, to promote the rule of law and create a just, democratic and secure world," the draft statement said.
On Thursday, some EU leaders expressed hope that the second Bush administration would give a fresh start to transatlantic ties and allow for progress in Iraq and across the Middle East.