Britain fails to persuade EU to back war on Iraq

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair failed to persuade Britain's European Union partners to back an American-led war against President Saddam Hussein at the EU summit in Barcelona yesterday.

Bulent Ecevit, the Turkish Prime Minister, whose country would be expected to play a key role in a military offensive, also warned against military action, saying that Iraq no longer represented a threat to its neighbours.

He told reporters at the summit: "We feel that Iraq should not be the subject of military attacks because it would upset the whole Middle East."

Mr Blair also heard reservations from Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, before discussing the issue with other European leaders.

While the German delegation refused to comment after the private meeting, the deputy government spokeswoman in Berlin, Charima Reinhardt, said Mr Schröder believed that any expansion of operations against "rogue states" would need United Nations approval for Germany to take part. She said existing UN resolutions would not cover an attack on Iraq.

But a Downing Street spokesman said after the meeting: "There was a recognition that there is an issue that has to be dealt with, that we can't bury our heads in the sand."

All agree that the focus has to be on the resumption of UN weapons inspections in Iraq. The UN monitors have been barred from Iraq since December 1998, when they were pulled out hours before America and Britain launched four days of military strikes against Iraq without UN backing. The operation caused a yawning split between Britain and France. Divisions among the EU could again widen if the United States decides to fulfil its threat to act alone, if necessary, to bring about a "regime change" in Baghdad.

The Downing Street spokesman played down suggestions that Mr Blair was "going out to sell a policy", noting that exchanges with European leaders on the threat from weapons of mass destruction had been going on since the terror attacks of 11 September.

"It was made clear then that weapons of mass destruction was an issue that we were going to have to deal with. The main lesson of 11 September is that if you have a problem, that problem is going to come back and hit you over the head, if ignored."

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has warned a group of Labour MPs that Iraq could be five years from building a nuclear weapon. The UN inspectors say Iraq might still be concealing tons of anthrax and biological agents, and may still hold 3.9 tons of VX gas, the most lethal nerve gas known to man.

Mr Straw said yesterday on the BBC: "The whole world has made a decision that Iraq poses a very serious threat to the security of the region and to the security of the international community."

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