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Europe

Iraq and Russia To Dominate EU Meeting

The recent wave of terror in Russia and the Middle East as well as the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and a smorgasbord of conflicts dominate the EU foreign ministers meeting Friday in the Netherlands.

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A Belgian Air Force plane delivers EU aid to Baghdad

When they come together on Friday and Saturday at St. Gerlach Palace near Maastricht in the Netherlands, the European Union's foreign ministers are expected to discuss the recent wave of terror in Russia, bombing attacks in Israel and continuing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the leadership of Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country now holds the rotating presidency of the EU, the group will also seek new ideas for fighting terror and finding a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.

Violence in Iraq

Geiselnahme im Irak Französische Journalisten Georges Malbrunot, rechts, Christian Chesnot, links

French reporters Georges Malbrunot, right, of Le Figaro newspaper, and French radio reporter Christian Chesnot, of Radio France Internationale were recently kidnapped in Iraq.

In the run-up to this week's informal meeting, Bot traveled to Iraq and Israel. An EU fact-finding mission is expected to determine how the EU can better aid the Iraqi transition government in its reconstruction efforts. But with the current security situation in Iraq, and kidnapping a serious threat for all foreign workers, EU member states haven't shown tremendous interest in increasing the number of workers they have deployed in the country. Indeed, EU officials have said the security situation would make it unsafe to send European trainers, judicial officials or election monitors to the region.

"The difficult security situation may make concrete action inside Iraq problematic," a discussion paper prepared for the meeting stated. "Don't expect decisions immediately, but there is a real commitment to support the interim government," a senior EU diplomat told Reuters.

The EU diplomats are expected to offer only financial support in response to a request from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to contribute to a protection force for the UN presence in Iraq, Reuters quoted EU sources as saying.

Pushing the Mideast peace plan

The EU has also supported in principal the announcement by Israel that it will remove its troops from the Gaza Strip. But the latest attacks by Palestinian terrorists and the expected Israeli retaliation have pushed any progress on the peace-making front to the back burner.

Mauer zwischen Israel und Palästina

Israeli security vehicle drives along the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories near the Palestinian West Bank town of Qalqilya.

Shortly before Bot's visit, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also traveled to Jerusalem for talks. But there were no new impulses for the implementation of the international "road map" peace plan. In Maastricht, the 25 EU foreign ministers will seek to, at the very least, forge a common position for the meeting of the Middle East quartet members -- the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations -- planned for mid-September in New York. The EU is also continuing its protest over Israel's construction of a security fence in occupied Palestinian territories.

The EU's position on the Chechen conflict and its relationship with Russia will also be discussed in the talks. The EU has repeatedly criticized Russia for human rights violations in Chechnya, and the European Commission had harsh words for recent elections there, describing them as "neither transparent nor fair." The statement came during a visit by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort city of Sotchi. Schröder was roundly criticized in Brussels and by Germany's main opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, for his failure to address the election irregularities -- which included allegations of vote-rigging -- with Putin.

Sudan position expected

Sudan Darfur

Sudanese displaced women carry firewood at Abu Shouk camp, in north Darfur, Sudan, where more than 40,000 displaced people receive food and shelter from international aid agencies.

On Saturday, the ministers are expected to discuss the situation in Sudan. This week, the government in Khartoum allowed a UN ultimatum to expire which called for the Sudanese government to reign in marauding militia or face possible sanctions. The EU is expected to react to the development over the weekend. Some member states are calling for sanctions, but others are calling for further negotiations in order to stem the killing and displacement in western Sudan. Meanwhile, the Netherlands' Bot is expected to travel to Khartoum next week to personally deliver the EU's position.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is expected to only meet shortly with his EU colleagues because he must also attend a government retreat in Bonn this weekend.

EU big three to discuss Iran

While attending the EU talks, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany will also discuss Europe's failure to persuade Iran to curtail its nuclear activities.

In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Tehran is planning to process 37 tons of "yellowcake" uranium oxide -- enough to produce five nuclear bombs. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he called Jack Straw, Michel Barnier and Joschka Fischer to ask them to reach a consensus to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for sanctions or other possible punitive action. Powell called on Europe to stop offering what he called "carrots" to Tehran and move towards sanctions.

The EU has sought to progress in Iran on Tehran's nuclear program, human rights, terrorism and Iran's support of organizations hostile to the Mideast peace process in exchange for trade and economic aid. So far those initiatives have faltered.

However, EU diplomats quoted by Reuters said most EU countries, including the Big Three, believed there was not enough evidence to take Iran to the Security Council at the moment. Nonetheless, earlier this week EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten conceded EU efforts to build ties with Iran had "gone backwards."

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