Brussels, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterdays talks between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the foreign ministers from NATO and EU countries exposed deep differences of opinion on the future role of the United Nations in postwar Iraq.
The United States does not deny the need for UN involvement, but as a "partner" in a wider effort led by the coalition of countries engaged in the war.
The EU, on the other hand, said it would not fund reconstruction work in postconflict Iraq without a UN mandate. NATO's European allies appear to have adopted a similar stance with regard to NATO participation in postconflict peacekeeping.
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson sought to capture the mood at the meetings, speaking of "continuity." He said the talks between Powell and the U.S.'s European allies showed that any divisions belong firmly in the past.
Yet, no matter how carefully worded, statements from Powell and various European ministers left little doubt that if there is continuity, it still mostly applies to differences over a central issue in postconflict Iraq: the role of the United Nations in rebuilding the country.
According to one EU official, Powell asked his European colleagues to avoid using terms like "central" or "leadership" when talking about a possible UN role in Iraq. Instead, he said "cooperation" and "support" should characterize the involvement of the United Nations.
At a news conference after today's meetings, Powell said it is clear the UN will play a role, but it is not yet clear what the role will be. "We all understand that the UN must play a role [in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq . The [U.S.] president has said so, he has said it clearly. The nature of that role and how it is to be played remains to be seen," Powell said.
He said it was the coalition, however, that should take the leading role. "It was the coalition that came together and took on this difficult mission at political expense, at the expense of the treasure, the money that it costs, but at the expense of lives as well. And when we have succeeded and when we look down the road to create this better life for the Iraqi people, to rebuild this society, to rebuild this country after these decades of devastation brought by Saddam Hussein, I think the coalition has to play the leading role in determining the way forward," Powell said.
America's European allies, on the other hand, demanded that the United Nations play not "a" role, but "the lead" role in rebuilding Iraq. This is a position that appears to be shared even by supporters of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, such as Britain, Spain, and Italy.
The point that the United Nations must be given the driving seat in Iraq was made in no uncertain terms today by France and Belgium, among others.
Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou could today speak with rare authority on behalf of the entire EU, when he said that the bloc places great importance on the role of the UN "in all phases" of the crisis in Iraq from now on. Without UN authorization, he said, the EU would not be in a position to contribute badly needed funds to rebuild Iraq.
"A UN resolution will be a prerequisite for full involvement of the European Union in the postconflict reconstruction [of Iraq]," Papandreou said.
In what could be a warning to the United States, Papandreou stressed that agreement on a UN role should lead to consensus, not "diversion" in trans-Atlantic relations.
Similarly, NATO's Robertson today said the alliance's possible contribution to a peacekeeping effort in postwar Iraq would have to be "considered carefully in the light of decisions taken by the United Nations."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin indicated his country, which opposes the war, is taking a pragmatic stand. He said France "understands" that a period of stabilization, or "securing the country," is necessary during which coalition forces on the ground have a "special" responsibility for Iraq. As soon as Iraq has been secured, however, he said the United Nations must play the "central role" in reconstruction.
Another EU minister, who did not want to be identified, said that although the "central role" of the United Nations was vital, care must be taken that the organization does not enter the fray too early. The minister warned against calls to entrust the United Nations with overseeing the "stabilization phase" in Iraq, saying this could be interpreted as the UN legitimizing the war.
He also said the United Nations must avoid becoming embroiled in a situation which it is not equipped to control -- for example, if fundamentalist tendencies flare up before Iraq is completely pacified, or a full-scale civil war breaks out.