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Europe

Europe Still Divided Over Iraq

European leaders are still wringing their hands over a common policy towards Iraq against a backdrop of mass demonstrations against military force and diplomatic tension at the Security Council.

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Opposition in Europe to a military attack on Iraq is growing

Diplomatic wrangling inside the United Nations Security Council is threatening to overshadow a meeting between United Nations and Iraqi officials in Vienna on Monday to discuss the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq for the first time in four years.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are lobbying hard to win the council's support for a new toughly worded US draft resolution requiring Baghdad to fully comply with new arms inspection rules within 30 days or face military action.

The new resolution is expected to propose a radical change to the inspections regime in Iraq, including tight deadlines, stringent inspection rules and the possible inclusion of armed guards on inspection teams.

France unlikely to endorse new resolution

In an attempt to persuade France, Russia and China -- those permanent council members still reluctant to sign the resolution -- Britain has sent an envoy to Beijing, while the US is likely to try and persuade France and Russia to back the resolution. Both France and Russia, like China, hold vetoes on the Security Council.

But chances of persuading the three permanent members appear slim.

France reaffirmed its opposition to the US-sponsored Security Council resolution: "We do not want to give carte blanche to military action because we want to fully accept our responsibilities," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told the newspaper Le Monde.

"That is why we cannot accept a resolution authorising as of now the recourse to force without coming back to the U.N. Security Council," he said in an interview, released ahead of scheduled publication in Tuesday’s edition.

Russia and China remain sceptical

On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said UN inspectors should return to Iraq "as quickly as possible".

He rejected the need for a new resolution, saying "the necessary conditions" for their return were already in place. But Russia would "look carefully" at the views of other Security Council members, he added.

Beijing has adopted a similar line. On Friday, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said after meeting with French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Rafarrin, "If the weapons inspections do not take place, if we do not have clear proof and if we do not have the authorisation of the Security Council, we cannot launch a military attack on Iraq - otherwise there would be incalculable consequences," he said.

Europe still far removed from common policy on Iraq

Meanwhile Europe’s lack of a unified stance on Iraq and transatlantic tensions will be in the spotlight at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

Caught between British Premier Tony Blair’s outspoken support for a US-led strike and German Chancellor Schröder’s blunt rejection of the use of force, the remaining 13 EU nations have been dithering in committing themselves to any concrete decision regarding Iraq.

"Iraq always has been, and perhaps always will be, the Achilles' heel of EU foreign policy," said Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform in a research paper.

"On almost every issue of importance – such as the Balkans, Russia, China, Iran and even Israel-Palestine – the Europeans have developed either a common policy or at least a fairly common perspective. But not on Iraq."

No to war against Iraq

But while leaders of the European Union’s 15 members states continued with intense debate on the issue of Iraq, a large chunk of the EU’s population was vocal in what they thought about the issue over the weekend.

Massive anti-war demonstrations took place in London and Rome as ten of thousands of flag-waving and whistle-blowing peaceniks took to the streets.

In Rome, a rally organised by the hard left Communist Refoundation party in the city's ancient heart, attracted an estimated 50,000 and 100,000 demonstrators, who accused Bush of war-mongering. "An eye for an eye will leave the world blind," sang one group of activists.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said last week that Rome had a duty to support US diplomatic and military efforts to disarm Iraq. But latest opinion polls suggest that almost 70 percent of Italians are against the idea of going to war with Iraq.

Anti-war sentiment was echoed in London over the weekend as some 150,000 Britons flocked to a vast peace rally waving anti-war banners and chanting slogans against "Bomber Bush and Bomber Blair".

Polls show that most of Britain’s 60 million people would oppose their nation joining a purely US-led attempt to topple Saddam Hussein. But two-thirds would be in favour if the United Nations approves such action, according to recent surveys.