- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

From combined dispatches

BRUSSELS Greece, which holds the presidency of the European Union, is trying to arrange a special foreign ministers' meeting of the 15-nation EU and 13 new members and candidates in mid-February to seek a common stance on the Iraq crisis, Greek diplomats said yesterday.

But Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis quashed reports of an imminent summit meeting to heal divisions over Iraq.

EU diplomats said the foreign ministers' meeting in mid-February could be one of the last chances for a deeply divided European Union to unite around an appeal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to disarm under U.N. supervision or face military action.

The diplomats said Greece hoped to bring together the 15 EU nations and the bloc's 10 new members plus candidates Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as Iraqi neighbors Iran, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The aim was for a wide consensus ahead of any U.S.-led war.

The diplomatic moves come amid a public rift in the EU over the U.S. threats of early action against Iraq, highlighted by a pro-American letter signed by eight European leaders Thursday.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the signatories, met President Bush yesterday to urge Washington to allow more time for weapon inspections and seek a second U.N. resolution backing the use of force if Saddam did not disarm.

Germany and France, which have led calls for a diplomatic solution to Iraq, were not asked to sign the letter, which was published in 12 newspapers across Europe on Thursday.

It also set off a furious reaction in Greece because Athens was not told in advance of the letter.

"The ideal of the European Union suffered a severe blow," Greek Parliament President Apostolos Kaklamanis said. "This war is undermining the course of Europe toward its integration."

The letter was signed by the leaders of five EU members Britain, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain and three of the 10 due to join next year the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

Slovakia said late Thursday it, too, was signing on to the pro-U.S. letter.

While ruling out a summit meeting in response to the letter, Mr. Simitis left open the possibility of a meeting if crucial decisions were needed on Iraq.

"We are not going to call a summit meeting because of the letter. We will call a summit meeting if there is a need, if crucial decisions about the developments are to be taken," he told reporters.

"The letter is a move which poses a problem, because it was done without necessary consultation. But it is also an expression of opinion, which is free among the member states," he said.

"The way that was followed [by the letter] shows there was a lack of consultation, there was no information. This way, we are not helping Europe have a strong voice in the world," he said.

But Mr. Simitis' spokesman hinted the unity message could be hammered out at the proposed foreign ministers gathering.

"According to the rules, a foreign ministers meeting is called through [Greek Foreign Minister] George Papandreou. We may know more Saturday on that issue," the spokesman said.

Tomorrow, Mr. Papandreou, who already this week has visited Turkey, is scheduled to head a three-day EU mission on Iraq to Baghdad's neighbors Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Greek officials privately said they were concerned that a summit meeting would worsen the situation.

"At the present time, a EU summit risks highlighting the Union's divisions rather than contributing to a common position," a government source said on the condition of anonymity.

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