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EU Unable to Smooth Over Deep Divisions Over War With Iraq - 2003-03-21

The European Union Thursday was unable to smooth over deep divisions about the war with Iraq, at the first day of a previously scheduled summit in Brussels. Analysts say the issue has caused the worst diplomatic crisis in the 15-nation bloc in decades.

The summit was originally scheduled to focus on the economic future of Europe, but the conflict in Iraq took over the agenda. France, Germany and Belgium strongly criticized the war to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. However, Britain, which is backing the United States, received support from five other EU nations - Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Diplomats say private talks between the leaders were strained, with French President Jacque Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder saying war is not justified, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that war was unavoidable.

Greece currently holds the Presidency of the EU. Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, speaking through an interpreter, acknowledged that strong differences remain in the bloc. "I think we all agree that the disagreements which undoubtedly exist could not be eliminated today," he said. "It would have been pointless to reopen this discussion. It would have lasted for hours and brought no result."

In a joint statement the EU said it hopes the Iraq war will end with a minimum loss of life. It also called for the preservation of Iraq's borders, the continued importance of the United Nations, and the need to help the Iraqi people.

The EU leaders discussed providing humanitarian aid to Iraq, but analysts say some nations oppose such aid fearing it might be seen as approving the decision to attack Iraq.