Reaching accord, EU warns Saddam of his 'last chance'

BRUSSELS: Fresh from winning a hard-fought breakthrough at NATO, leaders of the European Union warned Iraq on Monday that it was facing its "last chance" to disarm.

But the Union failed to resolve a fundamental split between Britain and France, the two countries whose positions appear to define the deep divisions in Europe over the Iraqi crisis.

While Britain has sent about 35,000 troops to the Gulf to participate in an eventual American attack, the French Navy said Monday that the country's only aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, would return to its home port of Toulon next week "as planned," after a tour of the eastern Mediterranean that included exercises with a U.S. carrier.

President Jacques Chirac of France said Monday that war should not be an option until UN arms inspectors decided themselves to call it quits.

"We are committed in the framework of UN Resolution 1441 to the path of disarmament through the inspectors, who alone can stop this process," Chirac said as he arrived at the summit meeting.

British leaders, by contrast, played down the power of inspectors, pushing instead for a set of political deadlines for Iraq to comply with calls to disarm.

"The best thing to do is to make a judgment of whether Saddam is cooperating or not," said Prime Minister Tony Blair. "That's why we require a timetable."

"We came together to send a message to the world: Europe is united," said Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission.

The message from inside the meeting room, where leaders drank Greek wines and dined on fish and "osso buco de lotte," was of discord.

A phrase in the leaders' joint communiqué pushed by Britain — that "time is running out" for Iraq — was deleted by Germany.

"That was not acceptable for us," the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, told reporters.

The communiqué made an apparent reference to the massive anti-war demonstrations over the weekend. Saying that the objective of the EU was "full and effective disarmament" in accordance with the UN resolution, it said: "We want to achieve this peacefully."

"It is clear that this is what the people of Europe want," the communiqué said.

The documents said that "war is not inevitable" and that "force should be used only as a last resort." Although the communiqué said "inspections cannot continue indefinitely in the absence of full Iraqi cooperation," it did not specify who should decide when inspections should stop — and force used.

"There's still a lot of debate to be had on that issue," Blair said.

Britain's hard-line stand appeared to be backed by Spain and the Netherlands. On the other side of the divide were France, Germany and Belgium — notably the same three countries that blocked a decision over military aid to Turkey at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last week.

That deadlock was broken late Sunday after a marathon negotiating session in a committee that does not include France.

Lord Robertson, NATO's secretary-general, helped shepherd the compromise by moving the debate from the North Atlantic Council, which includes all 19 NATO members, to the organization's military planning committee, which excludes France.

France withdrew from all military planning at NATO in 1966 and now only takes part in political decisions.

The compromise agreement was reached Sunday after Belgium and Germany received assurances that the military equipment to be supplied to Turkey would be used for defensive purposes only.

According to the deal, AWACS aircraft to be dispatched to Turkey would be used "for surveillance, early warning and maintaining the integrity of Turkish airspace."

The document hashed out by the 18 ambassadors recalled provisions of NATO's founding treaty, "in particular the undertaking of allies to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations."

"This decision relates only to the defense of Turkey, and is without prejudice to any other military operations by NATO, and future decisions by NATO or the UN Security Council," the final document said.

Belgium diplomats said they hoped the breakthrough at NATO would help the EU find common ground.

Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament, said what was at stake for the EU now is to show it has credibility in the Iraqi crisis.

"The Iraqi question has exposed in a very clear way the gap between Europe's aspirations and Europe's capacity," he said after discussions with EU leaders Monday.

"No matter what is written down, if it is not animated by political will it runs the risk of being nice but empty," Cox said.

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