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EU: Will United Stand On Iraq Alienate The U.S.?

The European Union today issued a statement calling for a central role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq and declaring Europe's willingness to help with reconstruction. This statement follows strenuous efforts by EU leaders at their Athens summit to heal the split in their ranks caused by the Iraq war. But does the EU's united stand now run the risk of creating new tensions with the United States?

Prague, 17 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Trapeze artists and politicians have much in common. As the trapeze artist swings from rope to rope, supported, it seems, only by air, so the consummate politician moves from position to position, seeming to defy, not gravity, but consistency.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has many of the qualities of a skilled performer. He has stood, so to speak, on the high wire as U.S. President George W. Bush's major ally in fighting the Iraq war. As such, his pro-war stance contrasted sharply with that of most fellow European Union members.

Now, he has swung back to his European partners by helping to formulate a statement on postwar Iraq that restores a semblance of unity to the deeply divided EU. The statement was issued today at a summit in Athens.

The key passage deals with the role of the United Nations in the process of rebuilding Iraq. The United States has made it clear that -- as the country that did nearly all of the fighting -- it intends to oversee the administrative and political processes leading eventually to democratic elections in Iraq.

As London-based analyst Dan Keohane told RFE/RL, the role the U.S. foresees for the UN is subsidiary. "The UN could give support and obviously help out in the physical reconstruction of the country and humanitarian aid and so on," he said.

By contrast, EU heavyweight Germany has demanded that the United Nations take the leading role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Today's EU statement uses softer wording than Germany and France would have liked, but stronger language than the United States would no doubt prefer. It says, "The UN must play a central role including in the process leading toward self-government for the Iraqi people, enlisting its unique capacity and experience in post-conflict union building."

The key words are "a central role" rather than "the central role." The concept has been watered down from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's hard line, but there remains a strong, specific reference to UN engagement in Iraq's political process.

Analyst Keohane said Blair himself seems to have changed his position also. "I find it interesting that Blair has signed up to this [role] now because, while he always said originally that he wanted a central role [for the UN], he seemed to be in agreement a week and a half ago in Belfast [with U.S. President George W. Bush] that the coalition would be in charge for some time," Keohane said.

Whether this new EU formulation will suit Washington remains to be seen. Everything depends on how the UN's "central role" is interpreted. On that point, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, told a news conference that the matter is not yet settled.

"The exact role of the United Nations [in Iraq] will be the result of negotiations, of contacts, with the United States, but also with Great Britain," Simitis said. "And Great Britain accepts the principles of the contents of this declaration."

EU spokesman Reijo Kemppinen, at a separate news conference, expressed the EU's concern at the current state of humanitarian affairs in Iraq. "The humanitarian situation in the country is, simply said, appalling. The [European] Commission and the president are very concerned at the volume of damage on the civilian population, and we will do our best to help the population suffering from the war," he said.

Kemppinen noted that the European Commission has reserved 100 million euros ($109 million) for financing humanitarian operations in Iraq. One-fifth of this money has already been mobilized for prepositioned stocks of food, medicine, and other relief items.