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EU Leaders Seek Common Position on Divisive Issue of Iraq - 2003-02-17

European Union leaders are gathering at an emergency summit in Brussels in search of a common position on the divisive issue of Iraq, with Britain and Spain arguing for a military option and France and Germany insisting on diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis. The EU meeting comes after NATO papered over its own differences on Iraq and hammered out an agreement that will allow the alliance to plan for the defense of Turkey in case of war.

Monday's EU summit will center not only on what to do about Iraq but also on whether the 15-nation bloc can speak with one voice in times of international crisis.

Most EU leaders appear to believe that war can only be a last resort and want more time given to United Nations weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq.

That was the line taken by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who told reporters upon arrival at EU headquarters that he expects the leaders to agree war may be necessary but only after all peaceful options to disarm Iraq are exhausted.

But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says he is pessimistic about the prospects of Iraqi compliance with U.N. disarmament resolutions. He told reporters time is running out for Baghdad to avoid war.

The EU's Greek presidency is urging the leaders to set aside their differences over Iraq and heal what have become deep divisions, not only within the EU but also within the transatlantic alliance.

NATO emerged from its most serious crisis since the end of the Cold War late Sunday after hammering out a face-saving agreement that will allow the alliance's military planners to begin making preparations for Turkey's defense in the event of war.

Belgium and Germany dropped their objections to such planning on condition that it be strictly defensive and that the alliance not place itself on a war footing. France, the most strenuous opponent of the planning measures, took no part in the decision.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson explains that the agreement was only reached because the issue was taken up by NATO's Defense Planning Committee, of which France is not a member, instead of the North Atlantic Council, where it does have a seat.

"NATO operates at two levels," explained Mr. Robertson, "one at 19, and the other at the Defense Planning Committee level of 18 because France is not a member of the integrated military structure. So France's exclusion is a self-exclusion by them, and they still believe that it is not time for these measures. But the other 18 allies agree, and we will go ahead with the planning in order to respond to a request from Turkey for defense measures against a threat that they believe exists now against them from Iraq, a close neighbor of theirs."

The alliance can now plan for the deployment of surveillance aircraft, anti-missile systems and anti-chemical and biological warfare units to Turkey. But the deployment itself will require another unanimous vote.