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Western leaders' Iraq rift grows

Rumsfeld: Germany and France represent "old Europe"

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BERLIN, Germany -- French and German leaders have insisted they will do all they can to prevent war in Iraq, after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the two "problem" countries as being out of step with most of Europe.

Speaking to a group of French and German students in Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on Thursday that he and French President Jacques Chirac rejected the view that war was unavoidable.

"We are both of the opinion, and the French president said that quite clearly yesterday, that one can never accept it when it is said that war is unavoidable," said Schroeder, sitting next to Chirac at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the postwar German-French friendship treaty.

"War may never be considered unavoidable. ... Everything must be done to achieve the implementation of the (U.N.) resolution by peaceful means. That is the common position of France and Germany and we will not be diverted from it," Schroeder said.

On Wednesday, Rumsfeld dismissed French and German insistence that "everything must be done to avoid war" with Iraq, saying most European countries stand with the United States in its campaign to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to disarm.

"Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem," said Rumsfeld, a former NATO ambassador. "But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They're not with France and Germany on this, they're with the United States."

"You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe," Rumsfeld said "If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the centre of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members." (Full story)

Earlier in Paris, Chirac and Schroeder said they were not convinced a war with Iraq was necessary while U.N. arms inspectors were still searching Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.

"Any decision belongs to the Security Council and the Security Council alone, which will address the issue after having examined the latest inspectors' report," Chirac said. "Secondly, as far as we're concerned, war always means failure."

France holds a veto on the Security Council as one of its five permanent members, while Germany is a key NATO ally and will hold the council's rotating presidency in February.

Asked about Rumsfeld's remarks, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in Berlin: "Everyone expresses their opinion. This should be done in an honest and respectful manner."

Volker Ruehe, former German defence minister and normally a strong advocate of U.S. defence policy, said: "It's not right to play off Eastern Europe against Western Europe."

"Rumsfeld is not exactly a diplomat and it is not very wise to say something like that," said Ruehe, chairman of the German parliament's foreign policy committee.

Hans-Ulrich Klose, a Social Democrat in the German parliament, said: "It's unheard of. The Americans can't call nations a problem just because they don't share their view. The Americans shouldn't try to divide Europe into 'good' and 'not-so-good' Europeans."

French Environment Minister Roselyne Bachelot, a senior conservative and Chirac's campaign manager in the last election, was even more blunt.

"If you knew what I would like to say to him, to Mr Rumsfeld ..." Bachelot told Europe 1 radio.

"I come from the Loire region where there used to be a famous person by the name of Cambronne," she said,

Her remarks were a reference to French General Etienne Cambronne, known perhaps apocryphally for his vulgar reply to British troops who urged him to surrender during the Battle of Waterloo.

Chirac called for calm. His spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said: "Polemics have no place in this debate."

Russia: 'No grounds' for force

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on Thursday there were "no grounds at the moment" to use force against Iraq, Reuters reported.

"There is still political and diplomatic leeway to resolve the Iraq issue," Ivanov told reporters in Athens, where he is meeting with European Union minister.

Ivanov said efforts should focus on letting U.N. inspectors press on with their job of looking for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

"The efforts of the international community must be directed now at helping international inspectors perform their mission," he said.

"This is the direction we intend to pursue, among others, along with the European Union."

"There is a disagreement on timing," Robertson said

Also on Thursday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson denied there was a "bust-up" in the 19-nation alliance over supporting a war in Iraq, saying the only disagreement was over timing.

On Wednesday, diplomats said France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg had blocked a decision to order planners to start work on options submitted by the United States.

"We have not yet achieved a consensus on taskings on particular proposals that have been put forward," Robertson told reporters.

"There is a disagreement on timing at the moment by a small number of nations, but there is no disagreement on substance at all. This is not some sort of bust-up."

Some of the allies have feared that starting military planning would send the wrong signal while hopes remained that diplomatic efforts and the U.N. weapons inspection process could still avert war.

Washington has formally asked NATO to consider providing indirect military support if there is a war. U.S. proposals include defending Turkey, an alliance member and neighbor of Iraq, with Patriot missiles and AWACS radar planes.

"I have absolutely no doubt that the alliance will, as it has promised, stand by its ally Turkey, which happens to be a neighbor of Iraq," Robertson said. "There is no dispute about that at all."

"We will continue, as we always do, to try and build consensus in a dignified and a calm way, and that was the characteristic of yesterday's debate," Robertson said.

"There is only a disagreement about timing, and that relates specifically to the timelines laid down by the United Nations in relation to inspections."

Robertson said NATO would revisit the issue next week and expressed confidence that even Germany would back the proposal to help Turkey.

"I have no doubt at all about Germany's commitment to respond to a plea from a NATO member to have protection," Robertson said.

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