The occupation of Iraq will be formally over in a matter of days. As acres of newsprint have testified, last year's invasion provoked serious divisions across Europe: between governments and peoples, within governments and among them. We share the experience of being from countries whose governments supported the invasion in the face of substantial public protest.

These European divisions over the coalition's military action spilled over into public disagreement with, and in many cases hostility toward, the power and role of the United States. In some U.S. circles, the feeling was reciprocated -- we heard a great deal about European cowardice and naivete.

These misconceptions are as widespread as they are wrong: The United States can be, and historically has been, a powerful force for good in the world and, of course, for good in Europe. But Europe has also played its part in making the world more prosperous and stable. It has been and should continue to be willing to take on its full share of the burdens of peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention across the world. For one reason or another, these views, widely shared by almost everyone in Europe, have not been heard or understood on the other side of the Atlantic.

In particular, Europeans do not underestimate the importance of the fight against terrorism. On the contrary, not only do we believe it is one of the most serious challenges to the security of our societies, we also have a long and difficult experience in dealing with this threat. Many Europeans were, however, convinced that the invasion of Iraq would make Islamist terrorism more difficult to overcome, even though all agreed that Saddam Hussein was an appalling dictator.

Debate on how and why we came to this point will occupy historians and political scientists for years to come. The state of Iraq, and its implications for the region, present a more urgent question: What now?

Three issues in particular are brought into stark relief. First, how should a superpower, indeed the superpower, exercise its global leadership role, and how should others respond? Second, how can we reinforce the effort, begun in earnest after Sept. 11, 2001, to build a global consensus on dealing with new threats -- weapons of mass destruction, gross abuses of human rights and terrorism? Third, and in response to the other two, how can we equip the United Nations system to deal with these issues appropriately and effectively -- agreeing, for example, whether and when there might be a legal justification for preventive use of force.

We cannot allow these debates to continue indefinitely, and we look forward to the report of Kofi Annan's high-level panel later this year to help resolve them. In the meantime, the situation in Iraq denies us the luxury of waiting for these proposals: A clear international consensus, now, is a necessary condition for a successful transition in that troubled country. America and Europe will have to work together to ensure an acceptable outcome in Iraq. We will all be damaged if we fail.

The stakes are extremely high: Failure could mean Iraq's disintegration. One of the most predictable developments over the coming months will be the attempt to discredit or murder the moderate leadership in each community in Iraq in an attempt to foment the civil war that could break this fragile country apart, with dangerous regional implications. An Iraq sliding into chaos would become a breeding ground for international terrorism. We are already seeing the warning signs in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. The human cost is obvious, and compelling. Self-interest obliges us to consider the potential economic cost of instability in the world's foremost suppliers of oil. Politically, failure can only cause the divide between Europe and the United States to grow.

It is precisely to avoid this nightmare scenario that the European Commission has worked from the very beginning to promote European and international consensus on the way forward in Iraq. Since March of last year, when European leaders unanimously supported a central role for the United Nations in the postwar transition, we have worked to create a multilateral umbrella for reconstruction efforts, enabling countries that did not support the invasion to nonetheless support the transition. The participation of Russia, Iran, Turkey and others in Iraq's reconstruction is not unrelated to this work. We have backed this policy with substantial financial resources.

This month we have presented proposals for a medium-term strategy for Iraq, looking at how the EU can progressively engage with a country with which it has never had any formal relationship. We are keen to start working with a new Iraqi administration with real authority to govern, in order to develop plans for the future together. Alongside this we are aware of the need to work with Iraq's nascent civil society to promote a broader engagement. Of course, given the current uncertainties, we are not expecting any overnight miracles. Rather, as conditions allow, we hope to build the same kind of long-term relationship with Iraq as we have already with most of the Arab world, bearing in mind that the EU is the biggest trading partner and donor of development assistance for nearly all the countries of that region.

We hope, then, that the meeting we will have with President Bush today at the U.S.-EU summit in Ireland, the first meeting of the leaders of the European Union's now 25 states with the United States, will be an opportunity to demonstrate that, whatever differences we may have had, for the future we are united in a common resolve to work together, side by side as true partners to see the emergence of a pluralist, democratic Iraq, at peace with itself and its neighbors, playing a full role in the international community.

Romano Prodi is president of the European Commission. Chris Patten is European commissioner for external relations.