Acknowledging antiwar protests across the continent, the 15 European Union leaders agreed tonight that U.N. weapons inspectors should be given more time to find and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and declared that a war against President Saddam Hussein "should be used only as a last resort."
Gathered here for an emergency summit to help heal deep divisions in Europe over Iraq, the leaders also warned Iraq that "inspections cannot continue indefinitely" and said Hussein must "disarm and cooperate immediately" to avoid the attack threatened by the Bush administration.
"Baghdad should have no illusions," a summit statement said. "It must disarm and cooperate immediately and fully. Iraq has a final opportunity to resolve this crisis peacefully. The Iraqi regime alone will be responsible for the consequences if it continues to flout the will of the international community and does not take this last chance."
Despite the warning, the European declaration was marked most by what it did not say: It set no deadline for the inspections to be called off; it did not commit European countries to using force to back up U.N. resolutions on disarming Iraq; and it did not say Hussein is already in "material breach" of the resolutions.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the U.S. ally most closely aligned with Washington, had sought these elements as part of his effort to narrow the gap between his fellow European Union leaders, who want to give the U.N. inspectors more time, and a Bush administration that is saying with increasing impatience that time is up. Instead, the statement said Europe wants to disarm Iraq peacefully. And in a bow to the millions of antiwar protesters who took to the streets over the weekend, it said the union is pushing for a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis because "it is clear that this is what the people of Europe want."
The summit's emphasis on more time for inspections and on war "only as a last resort" appeared to be a victory for French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. They came to this summit emboldened by Friday's interim report of the U.N. weapons inspectors, which noted some new if incomplete signs of Iraqi compliance, and by Saturday's outpouring of protests against war.
Chirac and Blair entered this summit staking out sharply different sides in this very public debate, with Chirac saying again today that it is too early to call for a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq and Blair saying the EU needs to send a message of strength to Hussein. European officials went to great lengths to say their emphasis on finding a peaceful solution to the crisis was prompted by the huge demonstrations, which saw close to a million people marching in London and similar numbers in Rome, Madrid and Barcelona.
"These were not only young, politicized people," said Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, the EU's executive body. "This was the whole society that took part in a spontaneous way." He said at another point, "We cannot forget the millions in the streets this weekend, so we are together with a message that Europe is united."
Asked about the message of the mass protests, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, the summit host, answered simply: "People want peace."
The summit was seen as an attempt to salvage something of a common European policy toward Iraq. The crisis has left the European Union severely split between two camps. On one side are governments like those of Britain, Spain and Italy that actively support the Bush administration view. On the other is the "peace camp" led by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, whose leaders want to avoid a war as long as possible.
Other European countries have kept quiet, but are split between those two positions. Sweden, Finland and Austria generally belong to the peace camp, saying any resort to force must have Security Council backing, while Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal have backed the hard U.S. line against Hussein. The issue had prompted tough words and bitter feelings among Europeans. France formed its own peace axis with Germany and Russia, while Britain and Spain angered others by lining up eight EU and Eastern European leaders to sign a letter backing Bush.
Chirac denounced the Eastern European leaders who signed the letter, saying their decision "is not really responsible behavior."
"It is not well brought-up behavior," he told a news conference after the summit. "They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet."
Britain, along with the United States, has been considering submitting a new Security Council resolution this week saying that Iraq is in material breach of the Nov. 8 resolution demanding total cooperation with weapons inspectors. The new resolution could be used as a legal pretext for a military strike to oust Hussein. But Chirac, whose country wields a veto on the Security Council, came out firmly opposed, telling reporters, "It is not necessary today to have a second resolution, which France could only oppose."
Schroeder also declared a victory of sorts, saying Germany successfully fought a British proposal for language saying "time was running out" for Hussein to disarm. "That was not acceptable to us," Schroeder told reporters. But by backing the final statement, which says war could be a "last resort," Schroeder seemed to compromise on his earlier stance that war would be unacceptable to Germany in any case.
The strong French position, the emboldened position of the peace camp and the new EU statement seem to further complicate the Bush administration's planning for a possible war.
The weekend protests seem to have made even Britain more susceptible to the idea of giving the weapons inspectors more time. In a BBC radio interview, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "It's patently more straightforward for governments to take a country to war, to military action, if they palpably have the public behind them than if not." At a news conference later, he said the British government will "listen carefully" to the expressions of public opinion.
Bush administration officials warned Sunday that the antiwar protests only strengthened Hussein and made a war more likely. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, said calls for delay "play into the hands of Saddam Hussein" and she warned Europeans against "appeasement," a term generally applied to the failure to confront Adolf Hitler before World War II.
U.S. officials have long worried that Iraq would use small, and what it considers inconsequential, concessions to try to drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies. One concession, made last week, was to allow American U-2 surveillance planes to fly over Iraq. In Baghdad, the Foreign Ministry reported that the first of those flights took place today and lasted for about four hours and 20 minutes.