- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 20 (UPI) — The European Union remained split over the Iraqi crisis Thursday, with France, Germany and Greece criticizing the start of military action against Baghdad and Britain, Italy and Spain backing the U.S.-led strikes.

EU leaders will attempt to patch overt their differences at a summit in Brussels late Thursday, but diplomats predict a frosty exchange between French President Jacques Chirac — a staunch opponent of war — and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has sent 45,000 troops to the Gulf.

In a brief televised speech to the nation, Chirac said: "France regrets this action taken without the approval of the United Nations. We hope these operations will be as rapid and least deadly as possible, and that they don't lead to a humanitarian catastrophe."

The French Parliament, which is dominated by center-right supporters of Chirac, suspended its session in protest at the decision to used armed force to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The German government also expressed its "concern and consternation," at the opening of the conflict.

"This is grim news as war is always the worst of all solutions," said Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Greece, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, voiced its concern at the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East.

In a statement, Prime Minister Costas Simitis said: "I express my deep regret that it was not possible to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq problem. I can only hope that the hostilities end quickly so that loss of human life is kept to a minimum, particularly among the civilian population."

Speaking to deputies during an emergency debate in the European Parliament in Brussels, Foreign Minister George Papandreou admitted the 15-member bloc was "going through a significant crisis."

Since the beginning of the stand-off between Baghdad and Washington, the EU has been bitterly divided over how to deal with Saddam, making a mockery of its pretences to have a common foreign and security policy and weakening its ability to influence the outcome of the crisis.

"When diplomacy ends and war begins, the only thing we can do is concede our failure," Papandreou told Euro-MPs.

European Commission President Romano Prodi described Thursday as "a sad and somber day for all nations around the world. The onslaught of war has put paid to the international community's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis within the United Nations."

Also speaking in Brussels, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten warned Europeans and Americans were faced with a stark choice over how to run global affairs in the future.

"Are we to go back to the way the world was run, or not run, in the 19th century — a world of rival national sovereignties and the balance of power — or do we try to rebuild the habits and institutions of global governance so painfully constructed in last half century?" Patten asked.

Despite the criticism from EU institutions and several prominent member states, most European governments supported the military action against Iraq.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said Saddam's refusal to comply with a 12 years of U.N. resolutions, left the international community no choice but to resort to war. Straw also promised over $30 million humanitarian aid to help cope with the expected flood of refugees fleeing the country.

Brushing aside the threat of massive anti-war demonstrations in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar voiced support for the U.S. stance but ruled out sending Spanish troops to the Gulf.

Peace marches also took place in many Italian cities in protest at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's loyalty to the Bush-Blair military alliance.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, who hosted a meeting of Aznar, Bush and Blair in the Azores islands Sunday said: "At this difficult hour, Portugal reaffirms its support for its allies, with whom it shares the values of freedom and democracy."

Dutch Premier Jan-Peter Balkenende also expressed his government's backing for the hard-line U.S. position, but said the country would play no military role in the conflict.

Most of the former communist states of central and eastern Europe, many of which are due to join the EU next year, gave their unqualified backing for the overnight military strikes, with Poland and the Czech republic pledging to send specialist forces to the Gulf region.

EU leaders are braced for a tense meeting in the Belgian capital late Thursday that is likely to be dominated by the twin issues of how to provide short-term humanitarian aid to Iraq and whether to take part in the long-term reconstruction of the country.

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