Rifts over Iraq: how deep?

At a weekend meeting, France, Germany, and Russia urged a central UN role in postwar Iraq.

As the antiwar axis of Russia, France, and Germany seeks to find common ground with the US to rebuild Iraq, divisions remain within the European Union over Europe's relationship with Washington.

At a meeting dubbed the "summit of the losers" by a leading Russian daily, leaders of France, Germany, and Russia gathered over the weekend in St. Petersburg - Russian President Vladimir Putin's hometown - and called for the UN to play a central role in postwar Iraq. The US, while conceding a "vital role" for the UN, refuses to cede control of Iraq to the international body.

From the outset of the discussion about going to war to oust Saddam Hussein, France, Germany, and Russia sought to create a diplomatic counterweight to Washington's unrivaled military power. The initiative split Europe and was a turning point for the post-World War II transatlantic alliance.

As Europe and the US try to repair the damage, recognition is growing that the pre-Iraq world order cannot easily be pieced back together. As before the war, the European discussion about Iraq has at least as much to do with how Europe views itself and its relationship to Washington as it does about the justification for war in Iraq.

"What we're heading for is some kind of new triangular dynamic tension between the EU, the US, and Russia in which any two of the three would ally to constrain the other, if it gets out of line," says Michael Emerson, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

With the war largely over, world leaders are trying to find common ground with Washington. Some progress was made this weekend when finance ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy industrial nations met in Washington and agreed to engage the UN in Iraq. The G-7 said in a joint statement that it "recognizes the need for a multilateral effort to help Iraq" and endorsed a UN resolution on the matter. The G-7 said that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank would play "their normal role in Iraq's development at the appropriate time."

But the G-7 could not reach consensus on a US-British initiative that calls for forgiving Iraq's foreign debt. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Baghdad amassed debt with foreign creditors of some $80 billion and owes another $40 billion in interest payments. Iraq also owes as much as $60 billion in unpaid contracts to private companies, much of that to Russian and French firms.

Whether the split that emerged over Iraq becomes a more permanent fixture of international politics will greatly depend on whether the US, Britain, and the Franco-German-Russian coalition agree on an acceptable role for the UN in postwar Iraq, say analysts. "I don't think we're seeing yet the emergence of a very rigid pattern," says Steven Everts of the Center for European Reform in London. "But if they don't agree on bringing in the UN, then we could see a solidification of these two poles."

One outcome of the Iraq conflict has been to recharge a discussion about the gap between Europe and the US in military capabilities. France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg are holding a summit on April 29 to discuss creation of a joint military force as the nucleus of a European armed force. The idea recalls a controversial concept of "core Europe," a small group of countries grouped around Germany and France that set out to accelerate European union by adopting joint policy without the broader EU. Europe is divided over the idea and analysts say that any European military force without Britain is ineffective. "The concept is very seriously flawed," says Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies.

Underlying the debate, say analysts, are opposing views of the future of Europe. The British are pursuing a policy of engagement with the US, to remain loyal and in that way exercise a moderating influence on Bush and his hawkish advisers. But German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder speaks of "emancipating" Germany from its historical relationship to the US. The debate is changing as former Soviet satellites join the EU and NATO, fulfilling dreams of becoming full-fledged Europeans. It was governments of these former Warsaw Pact countries that supported the US-British war effort, despite their citizens' opposition to the war.

"The debate about Iraq had much more to do with how to relate to the US, how to deal with American power," says Everts, the London-based analyst. "Nothing bothers the East [Europeans] more than if you start talking about a core Europe oriented against the US."

Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, visiting Berlin last week as Baghdad was collapsing, largely agreed with Mr. Schröder over the war but made clear that he did not agree with the tripartite axis. "We must strengthen the transatlantic axis and not seek confrontation," he said.

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