BRUSSELS, Belgium – European leaders, trying to end their bitter dispute over Iraq, warned Saddam Hussein on Monday he faces a "last chance" to disarm, but gave no deadline and said U.N. weapons inspectors must have more time to finish their work.
The statement came at the end of a European Union emergency summit on the crisis with Baghdad. Diplomats insisted they had healed the rift over U.S. calls for military action. But significant divisions remained, with some states saying the United Nations could still disarm Iraq peacefully.
"War is not inevitable. Force should be used only as a last resort. It is for the Iraqi regime to end this crisis by complying fully with the demands of the Security Council," the 15 nations said in the joint declaration.
That was seen as a setback for Germany, which has opposed war under any circumstances.
"Baghdad should have no illusions. It must disarm and cooperate immediately and fully. The Iraqi regime alone will be responsible for the consequences if it continues to flout the will of the international community and does not take this last chance," the leaders said.
While that position will cheer the United States and Britain, which are urging military action, there was still strong support for continued, possibly increased U.N. weapons inspections. The statement gave no indication of how much longer inspections should continue, but said they could not go on forever without Iraqi cooperation.
"They must be given the time and resources that the U.N. Security Council believes they need," the declaration said. "However, inspections cannot continue indefinitely in the absence of full Iraqi cooperation."
France, which has blocked any swift move to military action, insisted its position had been vindicated that only the U.N. Security Council can handle the issue -- an implicit rejection of U.S. statements that it has the right to disarm Iraq alone if necessary.
"We all agree the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is absolutely imperative (but) only the Security Council can handle the means," French President Jacque Chirac said.
"There is no reason today to change the strategy," he added.
That suggests significant wrangling lies ahead if the United States and Britain hope to get a second resolution from the U.N. Security Council authorizing war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants the resolution because of strong domestic opposition to war.
Chirac said France would oppose any effort to draft a new U.N. resolution authorizing war at this time.
In an extraordinary outburst, Chirac publicly lambasted eastern European nations seeking to join the EU for their support for Washington over the Iraq crisis.
"It is not really responsible behavior, it is not well brought-up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet," he told reporters.
EU diplomats had hoped to mend the damaging rift after NATO managed to overcome a disagreement on Sunday on planning on aiding Turkey in the event of war with Iraq. France, Germany and Belgium had blocked the move for a month, but a solution was worked out by moving the issue to a committee where the French are not represented.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared frustrated by the French stance, saying he did not understand how EU states could agree Iraq was not cooperating fully, but Baghdad had not been declared in material breach, or violation, of U.N. resolutions -- grounds for military action.
"If Iraq is not cooperating fully and everyone accepts they are not cooperating, why is Iraq not then in material breach? I still don't know the answer to that question," he told reporters.
Blair also appeared to be backing away from a push for a second U.N. resolution to endorse military action against Iraq. He said the earlier resolution demanding Iraq disarm made a convincing case for tough action.
At the United Nations, however, U.S. and British diplomats said the two countries were planning on introducing a new resolution this week, probably on Wednesday.
Seeking not only to mend rifts in the European Union, but also with the United States, the European leaders also gave the American military buildup in the Persian Gulf credit for forcing Saddam to work with U.N. weapons inspectors.
"We are committed to working with all our partners, especially the United States, for the disarmament of Iraq, for peace and stability in the region," the leaders said.
European parliamentary leaders, who met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan before he entered the summit, said Annan stressed, however, that he did not want the weapons inspections to go on too long, suggesting the threat of action had to be real to preserve the body's credibility.
The split had threatened the EU's ability to forge a foreign and security policy. France and others want the EU to be a major power that can counter the United States, but most European nations are reluctant to give up control of their foreign policy, especially direct ties with Washington.