Patten seeks to calm rift with US

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Transatlantic rifts over Iraq could play into the hands of Saddam Hussein, a senior EU official warned yesterday, as a concerted effort was mounted to damp down a damaging dispute between Europe and the US.

Chris Patten, European Commissioner for external affairs, told a gathering of parliamentarians from Nato countries it "would be fatal to allow Saddam Hussein, who is a genuinely evil political leader, to play off one group of countries against another."

As the fall–out over President Bush's description of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" continued to dominate EU–US relations, Mr Patten highlighted the importance of US–backed moves to increase the pressure on Baghdad over its chemical and biological weapons programme.

Mr Patten said that the United Nations Security Council resolution 1382 which covers the issue should be used as a "basis for much smarter and more effective sanctions" in order to get the "inspectors back to Iraq to do their job properly."

While that underscored Europeans' preference for sanctions, rather than military pressure on Iraq, it lowered the tone of recent exchanges. For their part US officials insisted that there is no suggestion of imminent armed intervention against Baghdad.

Tensions between the EU and Washington have been evident since the Bush "axis of evil" speech which ended the show of solidarity forged by the US and Europe in the wake of 11 September.

Mr Patten warned of "unilateralist overdrive" and the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer also expressed their concern, while the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, described Mr Bush's characterisation as "simplistic". That provoked a sharp rebuke from the US Secretary of State Colin Powell responded by accusing Mr Vedrine of "getting the vapours".

Europeans were both alarmed by the speech's implication that Iraq might be a US military target, and concerned that it struck at the heart of the EU's "softer" foreign policy.

Mr Patten last year visited Pyongyang and held talks with senior figures in the Iranian government as part of a policy of constructive engagement. Yesterday the Commissioner pointed out that the US administration has adopted a similar, more softly–softly approach towards China.

Divergences may also have been exacerbated by domestic political concerns, with elections due in France and Germany pushing rhetoric in one direction, and the onset of mid–term Congressional elections in America later in the year pushing in the other.

The change of tone began with Mr Vedrine who, on Monday, stressed that there was no Franco–American rift and called for UN inspectors to be allowed back into Iraq. Javier Solana, the EU's high representative of foreign affairs, also tried to tone down the differences arguing: "The relationship between the United States and the EU is crucial and we should not play with that relationship, and the US should not play with it either." He told a seminar of the Centre for European Reform think–tank that the two sides had to "coordinate and to maintain a good tonality in public as much as possible."

One diplomat said there was common agreement "that Iraq is a problem, it is a long–standing one and that we have to go about deciding how to deal with it."