Blair seeks agreement from European allies over role for UN in post-war Iraq

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's attempt to heal Europe's deep political rift faces its moment of truth today as the leaders of Britain, France and Germany struggle to overcome differences over Iraq and EU defence.

Billed as a symbolic meeting of reconciliation, the summit between Mr Blair, Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, and Jacques Chirac, the French President, is expected to involve tough negotiations.

The gathering in Berlin - the first three-way meeting since the Iraq war - is seen as an opportunity to make a fresh start after the bitter divisions caused by the invasion. France and Germany led opposition to the war in the Gulf, and Mr Blair's relations with M. Chirac were plunged into acrimony.

With the stakes high, London tried to lower expectations yesterday. British officials played down hopes of a breakthrough on a new UN resolution on Iraq, despite signs of flexibility from Germany.

Instead, British officials hope there will be progress towards a broad agreement on the way ahead in Iraq. "A specific resolution was never going to be on the agenda," a British source said.

In an article in yesterday's New York Times, Mr Schröder said Germany and the US had to work together to "win the peace" and pledged to offer substantial humanitarian aid and training for security forces to help form a democratic government in Baghdad. Mr Schröder's remarks amounted to the clearest sign in more than a year of Germany's determination to end its simmering row with America over Iraq.

"It is true that Germany and the United States disagreed on how best to deal with Saddam Hussein's regime. There is no point in continuing this debate. We should now look forward to the future," Mr Schröder wrote. "We must work together to win the peace. The United Nations must play a central role. Germany is willing to provide humanitarian aid, to assist in the civilian and economic reconstruction of Iraq and to train Iraqi security forces."

Neither Washington nor London believes that the wording of a suitable UN resolution will be agreed by the time President George Bush addresses the UN General Assembly in New York next week. But Mr Blair will sound out the French and German leaders over the possible wording of the text.

Meanwhile, there remains a clear division on EU defence policy between France and Germany on the one hand, and the UK on the other. Mr Schröder and M. Chirac will put pressure on Mr Blair to dampen his opposition to plans by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg to strengthen military ties. But the UK said the ideas, enshrined in a draft constitution for the EU, would undermine Nato and duplicate its functions.

Britain is hostile to a proposal for so-called "structured co-operation" by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. London argues that this would not be accessible to all EU nations, and would mean the "gang of four" could mount military operations in the name of the EU without consulting their allies.

Germany and France said that one clause in the draft treaty makes it clear that this could not happen and that such an eventuality is politically inconceivable. But the UK also opposes plans for a mutual defence pledge, arguing it could undermine Nato.

The talks come two weeks before EU leaders start negotiations on the draft EU constitution, drawn up by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Tomorrow, Mr Blair will host talks with the Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar.