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Europe

EU to Close Ranks at Conference on Iraq

European Union states see Monday's international conference on Iraq in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh as an opportunity to close ranks and paper over their continued divisions over the war.

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Patroling the conference site

The EU will be represented at the two-day conference by the Netherlands, which currently holds the rotating presidency, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the new EU commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Also present will be the four EU members of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations. Two of them, France and Germany, led the anti-war camp. The others, Italy and Britain, were two of US President George W. Bush's staunchest allies.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner

Benita Ferrero-Waldner at the UN in 2003

The Sharm el-Sheikh meeting should "send a signal that it isn't only the (US-led) coalition that believes in the political process, that there is very broad support for the political process that is planned," said Emma Udwin, Ferrero-Waldner's (photo) spokeswoman. "This really is a gathering of the whole international community."

Participants will include "those who were for the war, those who were against... all coming together to reaffirm their interest and commitment... in supporting the process

of political transition in Iraq," she added.

France, indirectly attacked earlier this month by Iraq's Prime Minister Ayad Allawi for playing a "spectator role" in the country, intends to push for an Iraqi transition period that is open to all political forces and can fit into the process of the withdrawal of foreign troops.

On Sunday, the Paris Club of creditors, which includes France, Germany, Britain and Russia, agreed to cancel a large part of Iraq's debt. Over the next four years Iraq will be forgiven 80 percent of the debt it the club's members, bringing the figure down from currently $38.9 billion (€29.9 billion) to $7.8 billion (€6.0 billion), according to Paris Club President Jean-Pierre Jouyet.

Constructive approach

The conference provides Paris with the opportunity to prove that it can be a player in the process without having its troops on the ground.

The approach led by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier aims to be "constructive," according to French diplomats, who are setting great store by the necessity of a political dimension to any end to the crisis.

Jacques Chirac bei Tony Blair in London

Chirac and British Premier Tony Blair (right) meeting in London on Nov. 18.

In the wake of French President Jacques Chirac's visit to Britain the same softly-softly approach is apparently backed by London.

"Obviously there have been differences of view about Iraq before, but even President Chirac was mentioning... that the important thing is to look forward, and that it's in everybody's interest to have successful inclusive elections and for Iraq to be stable and secure," a British official said.

Germans supportive

In Germany, a diplomatic source said the country had always supported a conference that brings together Middle Eastern countries and others from around the globe to discuss Iraq's future.

"We hope that a signal of unity among the international community will result from it," the source added.

Italy's outgoing foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has said Rome wants to see "an 'Iraqization' of the peace process, with total control of security being handed back to the legitimate representatives of the country."

For this to happen, "the UN must play a greater role than it currently plays," said Frattini, who will begin his new job as European commissioner on Monday and will be replaced at the talks by his successor Gianfranco Fini.

Ijad Allawi

Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi

At a European summit in Brussels on Nov. 5, Allawi called on the Europeans to put their differences over Iraq to one side and to commit themselves more fully to helping Iraq, still dragged down by daily violence.

The EU has offered a modest aid package, including €30 million ($39 million) for elections scheduled for January, funds for a training mission of administrators and police officers as well as a long-term trade cooperation deal.

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