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EU Begins Emergency Summit on Iraq - 2003-02-17

European Union leaders are holding an emergency summit in Brussels to try to overcome their disagreements over Iraq. While some EU countries think it is time to rally behind the threat to use force, most want more time for United Nations weapons inspectors.

Britain and Spain support the United States' hard-line approach to Iraq while France and Germany are leading the calls against any military action.

French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair reaffirmed their positions as they arrived at EU headquarters for what will probably be a long night of wrangling.

Mr. Chirac says France will oppose a second U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq at this stage. Mr. Blair says force may be necessary if Iraq cannot be disarmed peacefully.

But even though both leaders are unlikely to bridge the differences between their respective sides, the EU's Greek presidency believes they are eager to avoid making Europe's divisions even worse.

EU diplomats say it is not Iraq that is at stake at the summit but the need for Europe to speak with a powerful united voice in times of international crisis.

EU foreign ministers held discussions during most of Monday, and diplomats say they generally agree that U.N. weapons inspections should continue. But what the ministers do not agree on, say the diplomats, is how much time the weapons inspectors should be given.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says he is all for a diplomatic approach to the crisis. But he insists that U.N. resolution 1441 ordering Iraq to disarm must be backed up by the threat of force.

"It's implicit in 1441 that active diplomacy has to be backed up by a credible threat of force and, if necessary and appropriate, that that force may have to be used," he said.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana says most countries feel that although war could eventually be necessary, all peaceful means to solve the crisis should be exhausted first.

"We have to exhaust all the elements of diplomacy and all the elements of keeping the inspectors working," he said.

EU diplomats say the 15 member states are trying to find common ground. They note that Germany, which has opposed war even if sanctioned by the UN Security Council, has taken a step toward the middle.

According to the diplomats, if the EU comes up with a consensus recognizing that armed action cannot be ruled out as a last resort, Germany has signaled that it will not oppose such a stand.