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European Union: U.N. Must Play Important Role in Iraq

By Sebastian Rotella
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Trying to overcome divisions left by the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, the European Union on Thursday threw its weight behind a key role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq and said the EU also has a political and economic role to play in the reconstruction of the country.

France, Germany and other anti-war countries joined a pro-war camp led by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to issue a carefully worded statement seeking to ease the United Nations back into the battered international decision-making process.

“No issue has so divided the world since the end of the Cold War,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan SM ’72 said at the summit in Athens, Greece, held to welcome 10 mostly former Communist countries into the EU fold. “It is vital that we heal that division now. The world cannot afford a long period of recrimination.”

Annan spent Wednesday and Thursday shuttling between meetings with leaders including French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, all of whom teamed up to block U.N. approval of military action in Iraq.

Their actions exacerbated long-standing conflicts in the European Union between France and Germany, which regard themselves as the leaders of the organization, and Britain, Spain and Italy, which backed the Bush administration’s confrontation with the Iraqi regime. Moreover, Chirac irritated future member countries such as Poland, which contributed forces to the coalition, by criticizing their pro-U.S. stance and hinting at potential retaliation in the EU.

The war issue dominated this week’s proceedings even though Greece, which holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, had said Iraq would not be a topic for discussion at a meeting whose nominal focus was to welcome the members from Central and Eastern Europe.

With Annan the first dignitary to arrive in Athens for the meeting and the last to leave, Iraq “hung over the summit like a sword of Damocles,” one diplomat said.

The joint statement issued Thursday declared that “the U.N. must play a central role, including in the process leading towards self-government for the Iraqi people, utilizing its unique capacity and experience in post-conflict nation-building. [The EU] looks forward to a further strengthening of the U.N.’s involvement in post-conflict Iraq, initially in the coordination of the humanitarian assistance.”

Tellingly, with anti-war countries fearful they will be locked out of lucrative contracts to rebuild a shattered Iraq, the EU reaffirmed its commitment to playing a “significant role” in the reconstruction of the country.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou helped broker the wording of a statement intended to abet a conciliation that has begun with the victory of the coalition forces in Iraq.

Blair, who spent less than 24 hours in the Greek capital, met privately with Chirac -- their first face-to-face meeting since the war began. The sit-down continued an ice-breaking process between Paris and Washington and London a day after President Bush and Chirac had their first phone conversation since the war began.

The 15 current EU nations appeared to agree that the priority in Iraq is to help the country recover from the Saddam Hussein regime and the war that brought it down. But hard questions about how the process will work, and which countries or institutions are best-prepared to participate, still hung in the air.