EU leaders seek 'central' UN role in Iraq

The European Union has insisted the United Nations play a “central” role in rebuilding Iraq and has urged Washington to do everything it can to maintain law and order in the country.

The EU leaders were to conclude a two-day summit in Athens today with a call for an early resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process using a “road map” that has been delayed by the US.

They also called on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to be more helpful in creating a Palestinian government.

“It is essential that there is an early endorsement by Chairman Arafat” of a cabinet that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas – otherwise known as Abu Mazen – is putting together, the EU said in a draft statement.

The EU, the US , Russia and the UN – also known as the quartet – have agreed on a “road map” to Mideast peace that envisions a Palestinian state with provisional borders as soon as this year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has major reservations about the plan. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week the plan would be presented unchanged once a new Palestinian government is worn in, possibly by next week.

The EU statement revealed some common ground in Europe after months of acrimony over the US-led war against Iraq.

It said the UN “must play a central role” in Iraq’s reconstruction, starting with “the co-ordination of humanitarian assistance” and eventually leading to assistance for Iraqis to govern themselves.

For now, US-led coalition forces that kicked the regime of ex-president Saddam Hussein out of power had “the responsibility to ensure a secure environment,” the EU statement said.

It was endorsed by Cyprus, Malta and eight East European nations whose leaders signed EU accession treaties yesterday.

It was also backed by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov who attended the summit.

The statement was drafted by Britain, France, Spain and Germany – four countries that have been at loggerheads over the merits of the war.

French President Jacques Chirac said the aim was to set out principles for rebuilding and stabilising Iraq “with a central role for the United Nations”.

The EU head office would take charge of organising an airlift “so we can take the (war) wounded to European hospitals, notably children who cannot be adequately treated locally,” Chirac said without elaborating.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the statement was not meant as the basis for a UN resolution.

“What we are doing is talking about the new Iraq. We are trying to put behind us the argument about whether or not the coalition should have taken military action,” he said.

In practice, officials said the UN will not move into Iraq quickly – other than with humanitarian aid – and that Washington must go ahead and set up an interim government along with providing better security throughout the country.

The Iraq war weighed heavily on a landmark event for the EU at which Cyprus, Malta, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia signed treaties bringing them into the EU on May 1, 2004.

The 10 joining nations will bring 75 million people into the EU – raising its population to 450 million.

The newcomers’ wealth ranges from barely 29% of the EU average in Lithuania to 100% in Cyprus – without including the Turkish Cypriot north.

The bloc’s most daring expansion was accompanied by declarations of unity at a ceremony in a colonnaded museum below the Acropolis.

“The European Union is finally overcoming the division of the European continent into East and West, the political division of its states and the painful division of its people that arose as a result of the Second World War,” German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was also in Athens and held fast-paced meetings yesterday with European leaders to narrow the differences over the nature and timing of his organisation’s role in Iraq.

Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain – three backers of the US-led war – spoke of the need to stabilise Iraq quickly and said they may send peacekeeping troops. In Rome, Italy announced plans on Tuesday to send military police.

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