- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Insider notes from United Press International for Feb. 18 …

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Now that the European Union leadership has managed to speak with one voice on Iraq at Monday's emergency summit in Brussels, European diplomats report a welcome drop in the tension that had developed at the working level as a result of serious differences over how to deal with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Even routine EU meetings would often degenerate into bitter arguments. In Washington — and no doubt elsewhere as well — the ambassadors of France and Germany had taken to sending substitutes to the regular EU working lunches to avoid unpleasant clashes with their colleagues over Iraq. At one recent meeting, the French diplomat present was making a point in his own language, when one of the ambassadors present growled, "We conduct business in English here." In fact, under the EU language rules the Frenchman was perfectly within his rights to speak French. But without missing a beat he said, "As a courtesy … " and continued in English.

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And speaking of tension, a British political source who spent time socially with Tony Blair in the past few days reports that the prime minister is "very much in control of himself, but hyper. That's one level below manic." Hardly surprising given the near rebellious opposition in Blair's own party to his continued support for the Bush administration on Iraq. Dame Glenda Jackson, actress, member of Parliament and personal friend of Cherie and Tony Blair, was recently quoted as saying, "I'm proud to be a member of the Labor movement, it's my government I'm ashamed of." The source said, "The boys and girls are very unhappy, and the word is that (former Foreign Secretary) Robin Cook and (Chancellor of the Exchequer) Gordon Brown have buried the hatchet and are moving in on Blair." Brown is Blair's designated heir as prime minister. Party resentment against Blair is such that, "he would be very unwise to present anything before the House of Commons at the moment."

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With the U.S. arms buildup in the Gulf mounting steadily, invasion jitters have taken hold in Baghdad and there's a fresh rumor every day. One Arab paper — and subsequently the Guardian newspaper — reported that Saddam Hussein had placed his defense minister, Hashim Ahmad al-Jaburry, under house arrest to ensure that he doesn't organize a military coup. Then Tuesday, the London-based Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat said U.S. Special Forces had "infiltrated Baghdad and bombed several government installations," causing panic among Iraqi security officials. The paper quoted an informed source as saying the explosions were small and were intended to test the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces inside Baghdad, where the biggest battle is expected to take place in the event of a war. The American raiders reported that large-scale arrests followed the attacks, including members of special security units.

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When not staging huge protest marches through Rome and other cities, Italian anti-war demonstrators use flags to signal their opposition to a military offensive against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Italian urban landscape is festooned with rainbow flags with the word "pace" — the Italian for peace — written across the middle in black letters. The colorful banners are everywhere, fluttering over homes, businesses, and even regional and local government buildings. They've been spotted on the city hall in Florence, Rome, Genoa, and Modena, where the local government in each instance is left wing and therefore opposed to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's though pro-American policy on Iraq. But the flag also flies over the city hall in Taranto, where the mayor is a member of Berlusconi's ruling conservative coalition. Fistfights have broken out between civil servants trying to drape the protest flags out of their office window and Berlusconi supporters trying to stop them. This week the government dusted off a law that bars all flags from public buildings except the flags of Italy and the EU. Ironically, the law was introduced five years ago when a left-wing government tried to stop the separatist Northern League from flying its own flag. The Northern League is now a partner in Berlusconi's 18-month-old coalition — and it has been trying unsuccessfully to have the law removed!

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The U.S.-led Iraq offensive is good news for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida terrorist organization in several respects. One is the inevitable drain of U.S. Special Forces from Operation Enduring Freedom to join the buildup in the Persian Gulf. So the hunt for bin Laden in the rugged Afghan hills is being left mainly to 1,000 Alpine troops promised by Italy, and approximately 100 German special forces — both of which have yet to be fully deployed. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces units are almost a thing of the past in Afghanistan. German media report that British and Australian special-forces troops have also been withdrawn, leaving units of U.S. infantry which one German source said were "certainly less effective."

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