Straw hopes for unanimous Europe on Iraq

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw arrived for an EU meeting on Iraq today and said he hoped Europe could yet speak with one voice over the crisis.

But Mr Straw acknowledged that the prospect of conflict represented "hard decisions" for EU leaders, scarred by Europe's own experiences of "brutal war".

He was speaking as he arrived for today's meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, which will be followed tonight by a special gathering of heads of state and government of the 15 EU nations.

Earlier, Mr Straw acknowledged that it would be "very difficult indeed" for the Government to go to war with Iraq without public backing.

The Foreign Secretary said: "As the Prime Minister said in his speech on Saturday, of course some more time may be needed for some more inspections - but the critical point is this: the fundamental issue is not one of time but whether or not Iraq is actively complying, to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.

"If there is not active compliance, no amount of time or inspectors is going to change that."

Today's meeting comes after Nato last night finally agreed to help Turkey prepare to defend itself in the face of any possible conflict, overcoming French, German and Belgian objections.

But France has shown no sign of backing down from its stance that conflict is not yet justified.

Mr Straw added: "Every member of the EU is a member of the United Nations and the UN was founded from the humiliation of the League of Nations which failed to back its vision with a proper and appropriate use of force.

"(UN) Resolution 1441 set out very clearly that this was the final opportunity for Iraq to comply."

If Saddam Hussein failed to comply, the

resolution made clear serious consequences would follow.

"I know that involves hard decisions for everybody across Europe and because of Europe's experience of brutal war, decade after decade, people are understandably perhaps more anxious about the consequences of war.

"All of us also know it has only been by fighting tyranny that in the end we are able to enjoy the freedoms we do."

He said the Kosovo conflict had been an example of Britain and the US taking successful action after the UN failed to act and European diplomacy

had failed.

Asked if the EU could still speak with one voice, Mr Straw said: "I hope so. Europe has spoken with one voice in unanimously backing 1441.

"I hope today we endorse our previous statements and also recognise that if this is to be resolved peacefully what we have to do is be resolute and determined that the international rule of law is enforced."

Earlier, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Straw accepted that the Government had to take account of public opinion in deciding on military action.

"It's very difficult indeed in those circumstances," he said, referring to Saturday's mass peace marches and successive opinion polls showing little backing for war.

"It is patently more straightforward for governments to take a country to war if they palpably have got the whole of the population behind them than if not."

However, he warned that it may be necessary to use force to ensure that the will of the United Nations was enforced and Saddam was stripped of his weapons of mass destruction.

"If we do have to take military action we shall do so not least on the moral calculation that the consequences of military action will be better overall for people than the consequences at that stage of not taking military action," he said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair will arrive in Brussels tonight for a brief meeting and then dinner with his fellow leaders.

He is guaranteed the absolute backing of only Spain and Italy for his hardline stance.