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'Avoid war' in Iraq, EU urges U.S.

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RETHYMNO, Greece -- European defence ministers are urging the United States to focus on diplomatic efforts against Iraq and not military action.

"Our main aim must be, on the one hand to allow inspectors to go in without conditions, and on the other hand to avoid war," German Defense Minister Peter Struck said on Friday.

"War would have great political consequences and worldwide economic repercussions, as well costing many lives."

Austrian Defence Minister Herbert Scheibner said: "There has to be a political solution. We have to avoid a military action in Iraq."

Struck and Scheibner spoke at the start of a two-day meeting of European Union defence ministers on the Greek island of Crete.

While Britain, Spain and Italy support U.S. President George W. Bush's call for a strong new U.N. resolution threatening force if Iraq does not allow weapons inspectors a free hand, other EU nations, especially Germany and France, have urged caution.

Scheibner said the EU had to find a unified position, warning that continued differences could undermine Europe's efforts to become a stronger player in world affairs.

"It's important Europe reacts with a common voice," he said. "It's not easy ... but there has to be a common line."

EU foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana said: "What the European Union has decided is that the place where this has to be resolved is in the Security Council."

Belgian Defence Minister Andre Flahaut told Reuters: "Britain pays a lot attention to its partnership with the United States.

"Britain is talking less and less about European defence. It needs to be less Atlanticist and more European."

Solana: "This has to be resolved in the Security Council"

The two-day summit's agenda will also focus on the EU's fledgling Rapid Reaction Force.

The EU's aim is to be able to deploy military forces of up to 60,000 people with air and naval support within 60 days and sustain them for at least one year.

The force would be expected to take on missions ranging from humanitarian assistance to separation of warring parties in and beyond Europe by 2003.

"We must do better militarily," Solana said on Thursday. "We cannot afford to waste more opportunities to fulfill our objectives, in particular avoiding a growing trans-Atlantic capability gap."

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