BRUSSELS, Belgium – The European Union on Monday urged Baghdad to cooperate more fully with United Nations arms inspectors but remained deeply divided over how to solve the crisis surrounding Iraq's weapons program.
The 15 EU foreign ministers issued a short statement urging "Iraqi authorities to engage in full and active cooperation" with the arms inspections that began two months ago.
Still, the EU remained split into two camps, with Britain siding with Washington in advocating military action sooner rather than later. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands largely agree.
But France and Germany, joined by Austria, Belgium, Sweden and Luxembourg, insist war can only come after a fresh UN. Security Council resolution. Britain fears a second resolution may be vetoed and thus let Saddam Hussein off the hook.
Notably, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday said he agreed inspectors should be given more time if needed.
His EU representative backed that position Monday in the joint declaration with all bloc members. The EU "stands ready to engage all necessary efforts to answer the needs of" the arms inspectors to enable them to complete their work, the ministers' statement said.
The statement was issued several hours before U.N. chief arms inspector Hans Blix was to report in New York on Iraq's disarmament record.
The EU ministers said their goal remained "the effective and complete disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
French President Jacques Chirac also appealed to Iraq on Monday to fully cooperate with U.N. inspectors and repeated that weapons teams need more time to finish their job, a spokesman said.
Chirac made the comments in talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher .
"We will carefully study the inspectors' report and their opinion on the completion of their mission," Chirac's spokesman quoted him as saying.
It said U.N. Security Council resolution 1441 of last November "gives an unambiguous message that the Iraqi government has a final opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully."
France and Britain are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Spain and Germany are currently temporary members.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters Iraq has massive stocks of chemicals for arms purposes and has not been helpful to U.N. inspectors over the past two months.
"Time is running out for Saddam Hussein. He has had a lot of time — 12 years — to comply fully with the obligations of the Security Council. We'll make decisions about exactly how much time in the light of the report at the United Nations later today," said Straw, echoing U.S. sentiments on the Iraqi crisis.
Sounding more cautious, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said, "We must try everything to implement [the U.N. resolution] without military force."
According to resolution 1441, inspectors do not need to prove Iraq is rearming.
Any false statements or omissions in Iraq's arms declaration, coupled with a failure to comply with and cooperate fully with arms inspections would place Baghdad in "material breach" of its obligations — a finding that could open the door for war.
The differences over Iraq within the EU are profound enough that it has so far proved impossible for Greece, which now holds the EU presidency, to craft a united European position on the crisis.
Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who attended the talks, had hoped to take a single EU view on Iraq on a mission to moderate Arab nations.
Britain's lukewarm enthusiasm for a second U.N. resolution has turned Blair into President Bush's staunchest ally. Like the United States, Britain has begun sending troops to the Gulf region.
The differences within the EU over Iraq have soured trans-Atlantic relations in recent weeks.
In line with the EU ministers, Russia President Vladimir Putin emphasized the need to continue weapons inspections in Iraq during a telephone conversation Monday with Blair, the Kremlin said.
Senior diplomats said Russia would push for giving the U.N. inspectors as much time as they need to determine whether Iraq has destroyed its weapons of mass destruction.