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Iraq: Schroeder, Chirac, Blair To Meet In Berlin To Hash Out Rifts Over Policy

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The leaders of Britain, France, and Germany are due to meet in Berlin tomorrow to try to develop a common approach to the future of Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the one side, and French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the other, have been far apart on Iraq. Blair's active support for the United States in the Iraq war has contrasted with the antiwar stance of the two continental leaders. Now, when Washington is seeking more international involvement in Iraq to deal with an increasingly difficult situation there, these three have once again become key players.

Prague, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When they meet tomorrow in Berlin, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schroeder will be trying hard to overcome their differences on the No.1 issue on the international political agenda -- how to deal with Iraq.

The leaders of Britain, France, and Germany come together as the United States is searching for support for a new United Nations resolution that would bring in more countries to shoulder the burden of running postwar Iraq, while preserving overall U.S. control.

The major split between Washington and its continental allies France and Germany concerns the time frame for when the Iraqis will regain political control of their country, and the role of the UN in that process.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Baghdad this week that for Washington to relinquish control too hastily is to court disaster. "We are not hanging on for the sake of hanging on," he said. "We are hanging on because it is necessary to stay with this task until a new government has been created -- a responsible government. The worst thing that could happen is for us to push this process too quickly -- before the capacity for governance is there and the basis for legitimacy is there -- and see it fail."

Germany and France, by contrast, want the United States to quickly restore Iraq's sovereignty under UN supervision. They want to see the UN organize a quick transfer of power in Iraq to a new, internationally recognized government.

Chirac and Schroeder held talks yesterday in Berlin ahead of tomorrow's summit, where they discussed efforts to revitalize the European economy, as well as Iraq. Speaking to reporters afterward, Chirac reiterated their common position. "We should as quickly as possible move toward a more political solution [in Iraq], which is a rapid transfer, under the control of the United Nations, of governing responsibilities to Iraq's current authorities," he said. "And when I say 'as quickly as possible,' for us it's a question of months, certainly not years."

In a commentary today in "The New York Times," Schroeder says Berlin and Washington "must work together to win the peace" in Iraq, and that the UN must play a "central role" to give the mission there greater legitimacy. He said Germany is willing to provide humanitarian aid, to assist in the civilian and economic reconstruction of Iraq and to train Iraqi security forces.

What it won't do, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said earlier this week, is contribute troops. "We are ready to participate in the reconstruction and on the stabilization of civil structures [in Iraq], if there are guarantees of transparency -- complete transparency -- and international control. This is also an important point for our European Union partners. However, let me repeat once again that we have absolutely no plans to deploy the military -- the German Army -- in Iraq," Fischer said.

In similar comments, France's Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said his country believes it is not a question of pouring more foreign troops into Iraq but of returning sovereignty to Iraqi leaders so that they can find common ground before internal divisions fracture their society.

The exact transition formula that would satisfy all sides is likely to be a key element of tomorrow's discussions in Berlin. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan emphasized this week that the UN is not seeking to wrest complete control of Iraq from the United States. "Some people, when they talk about the UN role [in Iraq], seem to think the UN is going to take over the country and run it," he said. "That has never been the issue. Nor is the UN interested in taking over the security aspects and putting UN blue helmets [peacekeepers] on the ground."

Paris-based political analyst Alexander Smolar, the head of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, told RFE/RL that the three European leaders are not far apart in their thinking on the issue. "To find a compromise between Britain's own position and the Franco-German position would not be that difficult, I believe, because Blair was always in favor of the biggest role for the United Nations and the Security Council, and from this point of view he was European. He wanted very much bigger involvement of Europe even at the moment when the United States was hostile to a bigger presence. So the problem is not really a compromise between Blair himself, and Schroeder and Chirac, it seems to me, but rather how to find a compromise with Washington," Smolar said.

Blair, as U.S. President George W. Bush's main ally in the war on Iraq, will of course not adopt a position openly at variance with Washington. The continuing closeness between the two coalition partners is underlined by remarks in Baghdad this week by Britain's special representative for Iraq, Jeremy Greenstock, who pledged British support to the top U.S. official there, L. Paul Bremer.

"[Bremer's] objectives are my objectives. I am here in support of what he is doing, and the United Kingdom and the United States are at one in what we are trying to do in Iraq," Greenstock said.

The German Foreign Ministry, which is hosting the talks in Berlin, says that despite the differences, Germany hopes an acceptable UN Security Council resolution can be ready when world leaders convene on 22 September for the opening of the UN General Assembly.

Although the media focus of tomorrow's Berlin summit is Iraq, the trio is also expected to discuss EU issues, including the coming conference to finalize an EU constitution.