Awkward body language betrays the strain between Blair and Schröder

Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder agreed last night to work together to bring democracy to Iraq and to rebuild bridges between Europe and the United States in their first meeting since the war, but failed to mask their differences over the conflict.

Their rather awkward body language at a brief press conference in Hanover showed the strain caused by the Allied invasion had not yet eased.

Mr Schröder declined to endorse the military action by the United States and Britain. He said: "There will always be conflict over what form [the overthrow of a dictator] takes. I hope that the military gain in Iraq can be turned into a political gain for the people of Iraq and for the international community."

And while Mr Blair said the United Nations should have a "key role" in the reconstruction of Iraq, Mr Schröder said it should take place "under the UN umbrella" ­ an idea opposed by the US.

Mr Blair hoped that broad agreement could be reached on the UN's role with the details to be settled later. While admitting there were differences of opinion, the Prime Minister insisted that relations between the two nations were "extremely strong and will remain so".

Last night the two leaders travelled to Athens for a summit of EU leaders today, which will discuss the future of Iraq with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general. The meeting was originally called to allow the signing of the deal under which 10 countries will join the EU in May next year. Their presence at the talks could revive the split over Iraq between "old" and "new" Europe, because several of the new members supported the war.

The Athens summit will also discuss the new blueprint for the EU being drawn up by a convention chaired by the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

The split between Britain and the United States over how to deal with Syria deepened yesterday. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, refused to endorse Washington's description of Syria as a "rogue state". He said: "We use different descriptions ­ Syria has an opportunity to prove that it's not in that category."

Meanwhile, Jacques Chirac called President Bush for the first time in two months and seemed to scale back his demands for a central UN role in reconstruction. The conversation was "businesslike", according to Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman. An Elysée Palace spokeswoman said France, which opposed the Iraq war, was ready to adopt a "pragmatic approach". Among the issues raised were Iraq's reconstruction, oil and international sanctions against it.

M. Chirac welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. His spokeswoman said he had suggested that the UN should be involved in Iraq "as soon as possible", but did not use the word "central". They agreed that Syria should not shelter Iraqi leaders, but M. Chirac urged that "nothing happens to increase tensions in the region".

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