TWO weeks before the United Nations deadline on Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait expires, leading European nations are determined to make their voices heard amid preparations for war. But they appear to be at odds over precisely what they should say, and what impact their words may have on the unity of the international coalition ranged against Iraq.
Foreign ministers of the 12-nation European Community (EC) decided last weekend to hold an emergency meeting in Luxembourg Jan. 4 at which Germany and France are expected to call for direct talks with Iraq before the Jan. 15 deadline expires.
But Britain's foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, sees dangers in an EC diplomatic initiative at this stage in the crisis and is likely to argue against it, London officials say.
Instead, he will call for united EC backing for UN resolutions and urge the EC to continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States on Gulf policy.
Meanwhile, Britain was preparing to respond to an American request for the nuclear-armed aircraft carrier Invincible and two escorting frigates to be sent to the Gulf area. A favorable response, American defense planners said, would enable the US Navy to concentrate on attacking Iraqi forces and bring to six the number of American carriers soon to be deployed against Iraq.
The decision to call the Luxembourg meeting was sparked by German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He said last weekend that the purpose of the meeting was to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis because of the failure of attempts to hold talks between the US and Iraq.
French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said he agreed an emergency meeting of the EC should be held.
Mr. Genscher said: ``In such a very difficult phase, it is necessary to give diplomacy its chance in the search for peaceful solutions.''
Britain's line on the talks reflects the diplomatic style of John Major, the nation's new prime minister.
Shortly after he was elected, he made it clear that he planned to abandon a confrontational approach whenever Britain differed from its EC partners.
On this occasion, Britain has decided to agree that a meeting should be held, but will argue strongly that its aims should be strictly limited to supporting the UN and the US.
Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, and current chairman of the EC, said the meeting was likely to invite Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to Brussels for discussions to try to avert war. This was because of the failure of attempts to arrange high-level contacts between Washington and Baghdad.
Britain urges caution
In London, however, British Defense Secretary Tom King stressed his government's concern that a meeting between the EC and Mr. Aziz could be used to open up divisions between the EC and the US over the West's response to Iraqi aggression.
Mr. King said: ``It is very important that Europe makes clear that it stands in support of the UN. It must not give any encouragement to Saddam Hussein that we are considering some change in policy, or that Europe is going off on its own. That would be extremely damaging and quite wrong.''
EC officials indicated last weekend that Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland were broadly in favor of the Jan. 4 EC crisis meeting. French officials said President Fran,cois Mitterrand supported calls for the meeting, but did not favor talks between the EC and Iraq until US and Iraqi leaders had met.
As well as reflecting European concerns that the two sides in the Gulf were drifting toward war, maneuvering by EC countries appeared to be aimed at putting pressure on the Bush administration to shift its position on a date for talks with Iraq.
Over the Christmas period, President Bush held to his stance that a meeting between Saddam Hussein and US Secretary of State James Baker III could not be held later than Jan. 3.
Iraq repeated that Saddam Hussein was ``too busy'' to see Mr. Baker until Jan. 12 - three days before the UN-imposed deadline.
EC foreign ministers were likely to consider a formula for breaking the stalemate over dates, British officials said on Dec. 31.
Switch on dialogue
Early in December, the foreign ministers decided against holding their own dialogue with Iraq until US and Iraqi leaders had met. If Genscher gets his way, that stance will change. Such a switch might anger the Bush administration, a British official said.
Mr. Poos said Dec. 30 that the Jan. 4 meeting, which will take place on the same day that foreign ministers of Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia meet to discuss the crisis, will try to persuade Iraq of the folly of not backing down.
``There will be no negotiations, no proposal to prolong the date beyond Jan. 15, and no proposal for a partial solution,'' Poos said.