Blair seeks deal on Iraq's future

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair failed yesterday to settle his differences with France and Germany over who will police post-war Iraq, and who will pay. But a three-way summit in Berlin ended with the EU's most powerful leaders displaying a new willingness to work together.

Mr Blair met his two old European antagonists, Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac, in Berlin, and though they failed to agree over Iraq, they agreed to try to settle their differences amicably at this week's UN General Assembly in New York.

The most significant feature of the hastily arranged summit was that Mr Blair chose to meet the two European leaders who were most prominent in opposing the Iraq war, despite the risk that he might offend his right-wing allies Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain.

Worried by the enduring level of domestic opposition to the Iraq war and the damage to his own credibility, Mr Blair has decided to launch a new effort to engage with critics at home and abroad.

While the Prime Minister is going to continue insisting that he was right to take the UK to war, he hopes to persuade his critics to look to Iraq's future rather than continue arguing over the rights and wrongs of the conflict.

Inviting the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to follow Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and others by addressing Labour's annual conference, Mr Blair is hoping to concentrate the minds of party activists on the rebuilding of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Russia's President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that he does not rule out sending troops to Iraq but it is "not on the agenda now". Mr Putin's more conciliatory stance may prove a useful bargaining chip when he meets the US President, George Bush, later this week.

Mr Blair, Mr Schröder and Mr Chirac agreed that the United Nations should be given a "significant" role in Iraq and that power should be returned to the Iraqi people as rapidly as possible.

But they failed to agree how and when the US should cede de facto power in Baghdad - with Mr Chirac insisting once again that the Iraqi people must be given charge of their own destiny within "months, rather than years".

Washington's hopes of an agreement on a new UN security council resolution - opening the way to an international peace-keeping force to relieve the burden on US and British troops - now depend on awkward negotiations in the margins of the UN general assembly from tomorrow.

Mr Blair and President Chirac insisted yesterday that agreement was possible. "For myself I'm sure that whatever differences there are, they can be resolved," Mr Blair said. President Chirac added that there was broad agreement that the UN must be given a substantial role in restoring peace and sovereignty in Iraq.

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