Divided Europe Struggles With Iraq Crisis

A deeply divided Europe struggled Monday to close a rift over Iraq and speak with one voice to Saddam Hussein, though leaders were encouraged after resolving a monthlong NATO deadlock on defending Turkey.

With Washington pushing its allies for quick action, differences remained over how much more time to give to U.N. weapons inspectors, whether to threaten war as a last resort and whether to demand U.N. approval before any military action.

French President Jacques Chirac said his country would oppose any effort to draft a new U.N. resolution to authorize war against Iraq at this time.

"There is no need for a second resolution today, which France would have no choice but to oppose," Chirac said as he arrived for a European Union summit.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush's closest ally, said that tough language was the best way to avoid war.

"The most important thing at the moment is to send a signal of strength, not weakness, because that is the language Saddam will understand," he said. "That is also our best chance of avoiding war."

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio also reaffirmed her support for a hard line on Iraq. "It is only by the credible threat of force that we could send the message to Saddam," she said.

Acknowledging the rift, Greek officials were not drafting a proposed statement ahead of the summit, preferring to wait to see what emerges from Monday's discussions. Greece holds the EU's rotating presidency.

The disunity threatened not only U.S. and British efforts to win backing for a possible war, but the EU's nascent attempts to forge a common stand on the world stage that can counterbalance what many Europeans see as U.S. dominance.

"We all know that this is about the question of Iraq, but it's also about the question of Europe," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said.

Fischer, whose government has ruled out participating in any Iraq war, said he would not stand in the way of a compromise, even if the language includes allowing force as a last resort. But he felt talks should focus instead on making inspections work better.

"We don't want any military force," Fischer said.

Separately, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz praised German leaders for their anti-war stance, saying they were doing "a good job," Germany's Bild newspaper quoted him as saying Monday.

Aziz called German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder "a clever politician" and said Fischer was doing "a good job" by upholding his country's position in the U.N. Security Council, which Germany is chairing this month.

In Washington, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday the administration may ask the United Nations to take up a new resolution authorizing force, but that the action already was sanctioned by the previous resolution.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said a U.N. resolution was not strictly necessary before using force against Iraq. However, "in terms of political desirability we prefer a second resolution."

Ahead of the summit, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin reiterated the French, German and Belgian position that U.N. inspectors should be given more time. Britain, Italy and Spain, he said, were taking "strictly an American line."

European parliamentary leaders, who met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan before he entered the summit, said Annan stressed that he did not want the inspections to go on too long.

Britain was leading a push for a deadline, with support from other countries like Spain and the Netherlands.

"The best thing to do is to make a judgment of whether Saddam is cooperating or not," Blair said. "That's why we require a timetable."

Images of millions of people protesting military action last weekend around the world appeared to strengthen the anti-war cause.

"The best allies of our cause are those people," Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said.

He also lambasted Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Denmark for issuing a letter with three east European allies last month rallying behind the United States on Iraq.

The problem was not the content but the fact it caught the others by surprise, he said. "It has sent a signal of division in Europe that has weakened us all."

The divisions in Europe were reflected across town at NATO headquarters, where Belgium, France and Germany had held out for a month against 14 European allies -- as well as the United States and Canada -- over starting defensive measures to protect Turkey in case of an Iraq war.

Germany and Belgium dropped their objections for a deal late Sunday, but only after NATO went to its Defense Planning Committee, which Paris withdrew from in 1966. Paris participates only in political consultations.

Failure to work out a common stand on Iraq could exacerbate divisions over the EU's future, especially the drive championed by France and Germany to create a power capable of balancing the United States on the world stage.

The 15-member EU, which expands to 25 in 2004, has struggled to muster political weight to match its economic clout as the world's largest trading bloc.

Yet many EU members are reluctant to surrender their foreign policy independence and are determined to retain strong ties with the United States, which they see as essential to their security.