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Europe

EU Pledges Humanitarian Aid to Iraq

The start of a U.S.-led war in Iraq added a further edge to an acrimonious EU summit in Brussels on Friday. Despite issuing a joint statement and pledging humanitarian aid, EU leaders remain bitterly divided over Iraq.

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Face to face -- British Prime Minister Blair (left) and German Chancellor Schröder at the EU summit in Brussels.

A two-day heated EU summit came to a close on Friday with the European Commission earmarking emergency aid totaling €100 million($105 million) to help tackle the humanitarian consequences of the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Both German Chancellor Schröder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the EU's plans to release immediate aid to Iraq. After weeks of intense disagreements over the Iraq crisis, Blair was in a more conciliatory mood and emphasized that the EU should shoulder a considerable share of rebuilding Iraq.

Summit exposes deep rifts within EU

However, the summit did nothing to bridge the deep rifts that were evident among EU leaders when they met on Thursday. Instead the divisions appeared to widen further.

As leaders wrapped up the second day of tense talks, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt announced plans for France, Germany and Belgium to meet next month to discuss integrating their armed forces more closely.

Noticeably, the plans did not include Britain, Europe's preeminent military power. Although German Chancellor Schröder insisted no country would be excluded from a common defense policy, Belgian officials said only three were invited to the initial summit.

There was little doubt on Thursday evening that the annual two-day European Union spring summit in Brussels would be a tense affair, taking place as it did under the shadow of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou underscored the notion that souring relations with Washington remain one of the gravest problems facing bitterly divided EU leaders, most of whom have made it clear they belong to either the pro- or anti-war camp in the current Iraq conflict.

"In our relations with the United States, we have been and are still going through a significant crisis," Papandreou said during an emergency debate in the European Parliament just hours after the first U.S. strikes against Iraq.

Expressing his regret that the Iraq crisis had not been solved peacefully, Papandreou called for a "frank and open" dialogue with Washington in order to bridge transatlantic differences and restore the central role the United Nations plays in managing international crises.

A crisis-stricken EU

With Britain, Spain and Italy supporting U.S.-led war efforts against Iraq and Germany and France standing steadfastly against those moves, the EU has fallen into one of its worst-ever foreign policy crises. Indeed, the U.S. severely criticized France for its intransigence on the Iraq issue and blamed Jacques Chirac's threat of a veto for its decision to withdraw a second Iraq resolution at the U.N. Security Council.

Political tensions were on clear display Thursday. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, two leaders on opposite ends of a raging political debate, had little more than a polite handshake to offer each other. And though Blair dined with EU leaders including Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, diplomats said there were no plans for Blair and Chirac to meet privately during the summit.

EU leaders issue joint Iraq statement

Despite their differences, EU leaders did manage to issue a broad joint statement on the Iraq crisis emphasizing a "fundamental role" for the United Nations in world politics and pledging humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people.

European Commission foreign aid chief Poul Nielsen said the EU aimed to get humanitarian help that would include tents, food and medicine to Iraq as soon as possible and appealed to member states and the European Parliament for approval of € 100 million ($106 million) in emergency extra funding.

In a veiled warning to Turkey, the draft statement also said: "We call on all countries of the region to refrain from actions that could lead to further instability." An EU diplomat said that the message was aimed at EU candidate Turkey, which refused to allow U.S. troops to invade Iraq from its soil, but has given the go-ahead for thousands of its own troops to move into Northern Iraq, raising the possibility of clashes with Kurds.

Deep rifts within EU surface

But it remained obvious that it would take more than a joint declaration to bridge the widening ideological gap between EU leaders.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urged EU governments to pull together to bring humanitarian relief and reconstruction to Iraq once the war was over. At the same time, he highlighted the splits by claiming majority support for war, saying 14 of the 25 present and future EU countries attending the summit backed military action.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who chaired the summit, conceded that the EU remained split as U.S. and British forces entered into war with Iraq.

"There are differences of opinion ... quite serious disagreements, in fact," he said. "We can’t make them vanish nor can we overcome them at this time."

Earlier in the day, both Germany and France expressed anger and dismay over the launch of a U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq. In a televised address Chancellor Schröder said the military strike was the "wrong decision," and "thousands of people would suffer horribly as a result of it."

Gegen den Krieg

France's President Jacques Chirac, left, gestures while talking to Germany's Chanceller Gerhard Schroeder

Offering similar sentiments, Chirac said: "France regrets this action without the approval of the United Nations. No matter how long this conflict lasts, it will have serious consequences for the future."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a supporter of the U.S.-led action, said European leaders could have avoided damaging disunity if they had been more realistic about Washington's intentions.

"With a more realistic policy, we could have avoided this division, since the United States had a determination against which it was not possible to oppose a different will," he told reporters.

At France’s insistence, the joint EU statement also omitted any mention of responsibility for the war or whether Iraq had failed to disarm peacefully -- a clause Britain had sought to justify its participation in the assault.

Prodi calls on leaders to put aside differences

European Commission President Romano Prodi warned of a looming refugee problem and said that refugees were already on the move in northern Iraq.

He criticized the EU’s divisions and urged member states to speak with one voice. "Whatever the outcome of the war, there can be no denying this is a bad time for the (EU) Common Foreign and Security Policy, for the European Union as a whole, for the authority of the U.N., for NATO and for transatlantic relations," he said.