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European Bitterness Over Iraq Dissipates

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page A21

ANKARA, Turkey, Feb. 5 -- The war over the war is almost over.

Courtesy of the large turnout in Iraq's election a week ago, the United States and key European allies are beginning to make up after two years of bitterly strained relations over the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice greets Polish soldiers who served in Iraq as part of her whirlwind tour through Berlin, Warsaw and Ankara. (Bartlomiej Zborowski -- AP)

In large part because of the images of millions of Iraqis voting in defiance of insurgents, Condoleezza Rice's debut in Europe as secretary of state is being greeted with striking warmth and a rush of expectations about the healing of transatlantic ties.

"Irrespective of what one thought about the military intervention in Iraq in the first place," Germany is "strongly ready. . . to help Iraq to get toward this stable and hopefully democratic development," Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said at a news conference with Rice in Berlin on Friday.

In an editorial Saturday, the influential Warsaw newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza said that "by going to the polling stations in such large numbers, the Iraqi people helped settle the dispute between the United States and Europe over whether democracy can be reconciled with Islam. Thanks to them, the 'de-freezing' of transatlantic relations could happen earlier than even optimists expected."

Poland committed troops to the 2003 invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein, but the war has been highly unpopular among Poles, with public opinion polls showing that about 75 percent of those surveyed now oppose the war and want troops to come home.

Because of domestic pressure, the Polish government had earlier announced that as many as 800 of its 2,400 troops in Iraq would be pulled out after the election, with the rest coming home by year's end. But after talks with Rice, Adam Rotfeld, the Polish foreign minister, said Saturday that the Iraqi election had "totally changed our optics on Iraq."

"In the year 2005, we are in a completely different place than we were in the years 2004 and 2003," Rotfeld said at a joint news conference with Rice. U.S. and Polish officials continue to discuss the future status of the Polish troops in Iraq.

Rotfeld said Germany and France, which led opposition to the war, now speak with one voice on Iraq and other once divisive issues. "Today, in our talks with madam secretary of state, we have come to the common conclusion that the unfortunate concept of old and new Europe is a total misunderstanding," he said, referring to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's earlier distinction between "new Europe," countries that supported the war, and "old Europe," countries that didn't.

Rice has not yet visited Paris, which has been the most obdurate in confronting the Bush administration over Iraq, as well as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the easing of tensions is being widely noted throughout Europe. Britain's Independent newspaper noted: "Strange, is it not, how sweetness and light are bursting out all over -- even before spring is here? Iraqis go to vote. . . . And the U.S. and Europe suddenly cannot get enough of each other's company."

Rice, who had meetings in Berlin, Warsaw and Ankara Saturday during a whirlwind tour of Europe and the Middle East, is now focusing on how Germany, France and Russia, as well as other European countries, can provide new forms of assistance as Iraq establishes an elected government and writes a constitution.

"What we're hearing from Europe is a desire to move on to the next chapter in the history of this great alliance," Rice said in Warsaw.

The shift has also been reflected in the rest of Rice's agenda and the focus on other points of tensions, particularly with Russia and Turkey. Rice warned Saturday that Russia needs to prove it is committed to "the basics of democracy."

"It is important that Russia make clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary, permitting a free and independent press," said Rice, a Soviet specialist who speaks Russian.

In her last stop of the day, Ankara, the Turkish capital, Rice held a two-and-a-half hour working dinner with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in preparation for a Feb. 24 meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. officials have expressed growing concern about Russia's "backsliding" on democracy, including abandoning gubernatorial elections in favor of appointed governors, squelching independent television, breaking up the Yukos oil company and supporting the earlier flawed election in Ukraine.

With the U.S.-European rift on Iraq healing, Turkey now represents one of the biggest challenges. The country is a NATO ally that borders Iraq.

Turkish public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, and officials in Ankara are nervous that autonomy in Iraq's northern Kurdish provinces will foment secessionist talk among Kurds in Turkey, who are the country's largest minority. Turkey also is angered that the United States has not cracked down on rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party operating in northern Iraq.

An editorial in the nationalist daily Ortadogu Saturday said that Rice was known as a "predatory hawk. . . . At no period in Turkey's history has there been such antipathy toward the United States," it said.

"We are fully aware that the Turks have concern," Rice told reporters en route to Ankara, where she met with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although the United States will not make specific pledges, Rice said, she planned to reassure Turkey that Washington is "firmly committed" to a unified Iraq. "We are making that message clear to all," she said.

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