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Europe, U.S. divided over Iraq

An Iraqi police officer guards the main gate of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

LONDON, England (CNN) -- U.S. determination to achieve a "regime change" in Iraq -- and President George W. Bush's apparent readiness to invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein -- is splintering relations between Washington and European capitals.

It is also dividing Europe.

Opening his campaign for re-election, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Monday provided the sharpest rejection yet of the Bush line.

After Schroeder met recently with President Jacques Chirac of France, the two leaders insisted there must not be any invasion of Iraq without a clear new U.N. mandate.

That had been a common line within the European Union. But now Schroeder has gone further.

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Germany had willingly backed the fight against international terrorism, he said in Hanover, because "the security of our partners is also our security."

"But we say this with equal self-confidence," Schroeder continued. "We're not available for adventures, and the time for chequebook diplomacy is over once and for all.

"I can only warn against playing around with war and military intervention," he emphasised. "We won't get involved in this."

The message was clear: If Schroeder and the SPD are re-elected, Germany would neither participate in military action nor, as it did at the time of the Gulf War, provide funds for others while keeping its troops at home.

In part, Schroeder's words were a political calculation. Entering his re-election campaign having failed to meet his promise to cut unemployment, he needs a diversion from economic issues. According to a recent opinion poll, 84 percent of Germans oppose their country's involvement in military action against Iraq.

But with the anti-Iraq rhetoric being stepped up and some analysts believing that action could be imminent, Schroeder would be in a difficult position if the United States invaded before September 22 -- Germany's election day.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also has firmly rejected any German involvement in action against Iraq. Fischer is a leader of the Greens, who are in coalition with Schroeder's SPD.

The CDU-CSU opposition are playing things more cautiously. They condemn Schroeder for isolating Europe from America but say that no decision has to be made yet on German participation in any attack on Iraq.

French reservations

Across the rest of the EU it is a mixed picture, with many leaders insisting that the priority is not Saddam Hussein but a greater effort to find some formula for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

New French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin linked pressure on Iraq with the search for Mideast peace  

Lawmakers in many countries have expressed fears that an attack on Iraq would radicalise many more Muslims, create desperate instability across the region -- toppling some existing regimes -- and imperil oil supplies at a time when the world economy is rocky enough.

France also has indicated its reservations, putting the emphasis on a return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq. Like many European capitals, Paris wants to see every possible effort expended through the U.N. machinery before a recourse to war is contemplated.

But diplomats say it is not impossible that France would come around to backing military action at the end of the day.

Dominique de Villepin, the new French foreign minister, has said: "The more we put pressure on the Iraqi regime, the more we have to research on peace in the Middle East."

Among the most hawkish of EU leaders has been Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, who strongly backed Bush's "axis of evil" speech.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who also serves as foreign minister, is expected to back U.S. action -- although Defence Minister Antonio Martino has said participation of Italian troops would depend on "incontrovertible proof" about Iraq's war programmes.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has been Bush's most openly supportive European ally so far, insisting that Saddam Hussein's development of weapons of mass destruction cannot be left unchecked.

But Blair has yet to produce the dossier of evidence on Saddam's weapons accumulation which he promised months ago.

Senior MPs are urging Blair to recall Parliament for debate on the Iraq question, and there have been hints lately that Blair wants a greater effort from the U.S. in the Middle East peace process as the price of his support.

Rowan Williams, the next leader of the Anglican Church, is opposed to any attack on Iraq  

Blair is under great pressure to rein back his enthusiasm for supporting Bush against Iraq. More than 130 of his Labour Party MPs have signed a motion opposing such action, and resignations from his government could well follow if he authorises military participation with the United States.

The next Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, has signed a petition to Blair calling such an attack "immoral and illegal."

Also opposed are former ministers from both major parties, including former defence secretary Lord Healey and former chief of the defence staff Lord Bramall.

Signs that Blair may be wavering came after King Abdullah of Jordan, en route to Washington, stopped in London for a meeting with Blair. In the U.S. capital, the king said Blair had deep reservations about the wisdom of an attack.

But MPs and diplomats are united in predicting that when the die is cast, Blair will commit British troops alongside those from the United States.




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