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European Leaders Fail to Agree on Iraq

A three-party summit highlights the views dividing France and Germany from Britain.

September 21, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The leaders of Europe's three major powers failed Saturday to agree on a unified plan for postwar Iraq, but they called for a prominent United Nations role in rebuilding the country and a return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

The two-hour summit between German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair underscored Europe's political differences as it seeks consensus on Iraq. Germany and France opposed the war and now want the United States to swiftly relinquish control in Baghdad, while Britain -- the Bush administration's closest ally -- is against rushing a transfer of power.

"The three of us share the opinion that it is the task of the international community to [bring] democracy and stability to Iraq," Schroeder said during a 25-minute news conference after the summit. "We want to give the U.N. a significant role and we need to hand over the political responsibility to Iraqi authorities as soon as possible. There are differences of opinion on how to achieve that."

Chirac said the three leaders "don't entirely agree on the means and timetable" for a broader U.N presence and for the Iraqi government to assume control. France has been the most adamant in calling for the U.S. to cede political power almost immediately. In recent days, however, Chirac has appeared to soften his nation's stance by modifying demands that the U.N. be granted greater oversight within one month.

The leaders met in an effort to reach a common position as the United Nations prepares to address this week a disputed U.S. draft resolution seeking international troops and billions of dollars in aid to rebuild Iraq.

Germany and France are still unsatisfied with the resolution, claiming it allows the United States to retain too much authority. But Europe and the U.S. want to avoid the acrimony that surrounded the U.N. debate before the war against Saddam Hussein in March. That political firestorm weakened the U.N. and was one of the worst blows to transatlantic relations in half a century.

"Whatever differences there have been about the conflict, we all want to see a stable and democratic Iraq," Blair said Saturday in a garden at the German chancellery. "We all want to see Iraq make a transition to democracy as soon as possible, and we want to see a key role for the United Nations.... The entire world is interested in seeing these things happen."

Blair is facing political troubles at home. His government is being blamed for embellishing intelligence on Iraq to bolster Blair's claims that Hussein posed a threat to the world.

Saturday's summit was a chance for Blair to improve Britain's relations with France and Germany at a time when more than 10,000 British troops are stationed in Iraq, which is increasingly hostile to occupation forces. But the prime minister's reluctance to define a U.N. role and timetable in Iraq blocked a unified European stand.

The Bush administration also is encountering growing domestic criticism over the war and the cost of reconstruction. Bush recently asked Congress for $87 billion for military and reconstruction costs, mostly for Iraq. Security in Iraq is unpredictable, and Washington wants control of any military command and does not want to be held to a timetable on when to turn authority over to the U.N.

Although Germany and France were united in their fervent opposition to the war, a gap between the two nations is widening over how to improve relations with the United States and take part in rebuilding Iraq without losing political credibility at home. France's strategy has been twofold: repeatedly criticizing U.S. policy in Iraq while attempting to forge a European coalition to counterbalance Washington's goals around the globe.

"We need to give the Iraqis the ability to take their fate into their own hands," said Chirac, adding that sovereignty should be restored "within months."

The Germans have struck a more diplomatic tone.

In recent days, Schroeder has reiterated his stand for more U.N. control, but he has pledged to "work together to win the peace." Germany says it will attend the donor conference for Iraq in Spain next month, and has offered to train Iraqi security forces and assist in the country's reconstruction.

The chancellor -- who is scheduled to meet Bush this week after more than a year of bitterness between the two -- has toned down his harsh language against U.S. policy and has called for more international cooperation in fighting terrorism.

"Germany is really between two stones and it doesn't want to get smashed," said Bernhard May, deputy director of the Research Institute for the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Germany knows it can't run against the U.S. But it also has to live with France as the two powers in Europe."

Christian Retzlaff in The Times' Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.

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