After a brief show of unity, the divisions over the war in Iraq have opened up again

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The harmony that prevailed through the weekend of D-Day commemorations and secured unanimous passage of the UN Security Council resolution on Iraq has been short-lived. The eight national leaders who met at Sea Island went their separate ways yesterday, having barely papered over the cracks created or deepened by George Bush's fateful decision to go to war in Iraq.

The harmony that prevailed through the weekend of D-Day commemorations and secured unanimous passage of the UN Security Council resolution on Iraq has been short-lived. The eight national leaders who met at Sea Island went their separate ways yesterday, having barely papered over the cracks created or deepened by George Bush's fateful decision to go to war in Iraq.

Predictably, it was President Jacques Chirac of France who spoiled the party. First, he had the nerve to dismiss, very publicly, Mr Bush's call for Nato to be involved in enforcing security in Iraq. Then he damned with faint praise the summit declaration on political and economic reform in the Arab world, challenging the premise that "missionaries of democracy", as he called them, were quite what these countries needed.

Such outspoken disagreement is unusual at summits, even at these eight-sided gatherings, which unite leaders of such disparate nations. The fact that it was M. Chirac who expressed disagreement ­ the same M. Chirac who led European opposition to the Iraq war ­ does not invalidate his dissent. On the contrary, every summit should have a Chirac. Bland good intentions, set out at tedious length, are the bane of summitry, especially when ­ as at Sea Island ­ the host is shamelessly angling for retrospective international approval for a national policy that was wrong.

It also happens that in both of his arguments, M. Chirac was right. Even if there is to be some eventual involvement of Nato in Iraq, this is not a matter for the G8; it is for the members of Nato at their coming summit in Istanbul, and for Iraq's supposedly sovereign, interim government. Nor is Mr Bush's proposal as uncontentious as it might look. Nato, as its new Secretary General stresses wherever and whenever he speaks, is already over-stretched. It needs more forces in Afghanistan for a mission, let us not forget, which began and continues with full international approval. The Bush Administration may have disgracefully shifted Congress-approved funds from the Afghanistan column to the one marked Iraq, but Nato cannot do the same.

A Nato mandate in Iraq would also raise the delicate question of Turkish involvement. So far, to universal relief, Turkish forces have remained on their side of the border with the Kurdish region of Iraq, and that is where they should stay. Turks or no Turks, though, Nato is not an institution that should be drawn upon to eke out over-stretched national forces in a disputed military enterprise. It is an alliance and, however awkward some of its members may be, it derives its authority from the perception that it is not a branch of the Pentagon.

M. Chirac is also right about democracy. This is not something that can be imposed from outside. The perils of trying to do so are all too apparent from the past 18 months in Iraq. The gap between the loudly proclaimed intentions of Washington's ideology-driven democratisers and the reality in Iraq is obvious to all. True, the G8 document is different from the one the Americans originally drafted. The new emphasis is on "partnership", on "support" for reform, and not just in the Middle East, but in North Africa as well. There is also a much-needed recognition of the imperative to renew efforts to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These revisions were essential; even so, the mindset of Western superiority and the "missionary" aspirations so characteristic of this US administration are barely concealed.

Paradoxically, the divisions over Iraq may have had one beneficial effect. Casting around for something to agree on, the eight found some common ground on debt relief for Africa, an item close to the top of the British and French agendas. They failed to fully meet the expectations of campaigners, but they did agree to top up funding for an assistance scheme, and to extend the window for aid applications. Thanks to the discord over Iraq, the richest nations in the world have rediscovered a mission that has long lain neglected: their responsibility to help the poor.

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