Europe divides sharply over Iraq

Eight European leaders back US policy on Iraq, putting new pressure on France and Germany.

President Bush won important international support from an unexpected quarter Thursday, when eight European leaders published an open letter backing the US position on Iraq.

The statement, drafted by Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, will encourage Washington to ignore France and Germany, which are leading diplomatic efforts to postpone or abandon plans to invade Iraq.

"The transatlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime's persistent attempts to threaten world security.... We must remain united in insisting that [Saddam Hussein's] regime be disarmed," says the letter, published in 12 European newspapers and The Wall Street Journal.

The statement belies the impression of a concerted European opposition to a war in Iraq. But it also runs counter to the trend of European public opinion. Polls have shown that in most countries upwards of 60 percent oppose a war, with the proportion rising to about 80 percent if the United Nations does not give its blessing to an invasion.

The letter was signed by the leaders of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Britain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Denmark. They made their move just days after US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed Germany and France as "old Europe," and claimed that "vast numbers" of other European countries were "with the United States."

The declaration, which agreed with the US view that Mr. Hussein's "long established pattern of deception, denial, and non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions is continuing," underscored divisions on an uncertain continent as the prospect of war looms closer.

President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday has done little to persuade skeptical Europeans that war is the only viable method of eliminating the threat posed by Hussein. There is a strong current of opinion among ordinary citizens that an invasion would be motivated more by Washington's desire for hegemony and for secure oil supplies than by the goal of disarming Iraq.

Labor Party members of the British Parliament angrily heckled their leader, Prime Minister Tony Blair, on Wednesday as he defended his decision to send 30,000 troops to the Gulf. Britain is the only European country to have committed forces to fight alongside American soldiers in any invasion of Iraq. But also on Wednesday, Italy granted US aircraft the right to land on Italian bases for refueling and other "technical" purposes in the event of a war. Spain has said the United States could use its bases if military intervention in Iraq was "inevitable."

European divisions were clear Wednesday at a NATO meeting in Brussels, when France and Germany, backed by Belgium and Luxembourg, blocked discussion of a US request that the alliance send planes and missiles to Turkey to help defend that country against a possible counterstrike by Iraq in case of war. French and German diplomats argued that such a move would be premature.

More evidence of the crosscurrents was apparent yesterday when the European Parliament voted 287 to 209 against a unilateral American attack on Iraq, endorsing the position that "a preemptive strike would not be in accordance with international law and the UN charter and would lead to a deeper crisis."

Behind European misgivings about preparations for war is a desire "to follow the UN line, and not give in to the pressure of US unilateralism," says Dominique Moïsi, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. France argues that the UN Security Council must sanction any invasion with a new resolution, if it finds that Baghdad is violating previous resolutions.

Nor are most Europeans convinced that the world's decade-old policy of containing Hussein cannot be maintained indefinitely, as Washington and London argue, or that Iraq has armed and otherwise aided terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda.

But as diplomats wait for the evidence of such ties, which Mr. Bush said America would present next Wednesday, fears are rising in Europe that a war could unleash a wave of revenge terror attacks by radical Islamic groups that have established themselves here.

"The internal and international terrorist threat would be even more worrying if there were a war in Iraq," Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said on Monday.

"I am worried that military action could have direct consequences on the level of the Islamic threat in Europe, especially by increasing recruiting of mujahideen elements," warned top French anti-terrorist magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguieré this week.

That fear lies behind the recent spate of police operations in Britain, most recently a raid on a north London mosque run by a radical Egyptian-born imam, says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrew's University in Scotland.

"Britain is sticking its neck out" by enthusiastically supporting Washington, he says, "It has been identified by Al Qaeda as a lackey of the US and so it is more likely to become a target."

The recent raids, which unearthed a small quantity of the deadly chemical ricin and led to a number of arrests, "were partly intelligence driven, and partly a marker, a deterrent, showing that the police are doing more than normal," says Dr. Ranstorp.

Recent weeks have seen a wave of arrests of suspected Islamist terrorists in Italy, Spain, and France, as well as Britain. All those countries are home to large North African immigrant communities that give Al Qaeda operatives the opportunity to blend in to the background.

More than 200 people arrested in Europe on terrorist charges since Sept. 11, 2001, remain in custody, and Al Qaeda cells have undoubtedly been disrupted by increased police surveillance. But in Britain alone, says Ranstorp, the authorities have identified more than 1,000 people who are known to have visited Afghanistan, Chechnya, or Bosnia - where Al Qaeda has been active - but whose whereabouts are not known.

Mr. Bruguieré suggested that "it cannot be excluded that in the next few months there will be a chemical attack with hundreds of dead" in Europe. Before British police discovered the ricin in a London apartment, French antiterrorist investigators had found cyanide in an apartment in a Paris suburb.

Ranstorp says that a suicide-bomb attack in a major European city is more likely than in the US, since it would be easier to organize.

A war with Iraq "would naturally mobilize confrontation between the Arab world and the West," he predicts. "It would certainly crystallize desires among people who might otherwise hesitate to carry out such an operation."

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