Baker on mission to heal the rift with Europe

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Indy Politics

James Baker, the former secretary of state, last night left the US on a mission to Europe likely to be crucial for attempts to mend fences shattered by the war in Iraq.

The formal purpose of Mr Baker's trip is to persuade key creditors ­ above all France, Germany, and Russia ­ to forgive debt run up by Saddam Hussein, and whose existence could cripple efforts to rebuild the Iraqi economy.

Before the weekend, amid a new row over the Pentagon's announcement that nations opposing the war would be barred from bidding for $18.6bn (£10.6bn) of reconstruction contracts, his chances looked next to zero.

But in the wake of Saddam's capture, warm congratulatory words from Paris and Bonn, and conciliatory noises from President George Bush himself, the visit is being seen as an unexpected chance to heal the rift.

If so, then the former secretary of state is perfect for the job. A trusted friend of the Bush family and a skilled troubleshooter, Mr Baker led the Bush forces during the Florida recount battle after the 2000 presidential election.

Many believe that he can speak for the President with an authority unmatched even by the current Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose policies are almost invariably second-guessed by the Pentagon and Vice-President Dick Cheney. General Powell's treatment in hospital for prostate surgery has not strengthened his hand in Washington's inter-agency squabbling. He is likely to be on the sidelines until the new year.

Europeans will be reassured by Mr Baker's earlier stance on Iraq. Like many close associates of the first President Bush, he was a strong proponent of enlisting wide United Nations and international support for any use of force.

Even so he faces an uphill task. Russia ­ owed $8bn by Iraq ­ has made it clear it will not even consider cancelling debt until it is admitted to the bidding process. Iraq owes an estimated $120bn, a third of it to the main industrial nations of the "Paris Club", and $80bn to Arab and other countries.