NEWS

Iraq war fears mount

With war in Iraq appearing all but inevitable, Greek officials are expressing hope that it will be over as quickly as possible, leaving the least possible damage. Athens has found itself holding the EU presidency at a time of unprecedented division among members with regard to how each sees the United States’s push for a quick solution. Greece managed to get the EU’s foreign ministers and later the heads of state and government to agree on common statements on the Iraq crisis earlier this year. But, following US President George Bush’s declaration yesterday that today would be the last day for diplomatic efforts to peacefully disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, it appeared a Herculean task for EU foreign ministers, whose meeting will be chaired by Foreign Minister George Papandreou tomorrow, to forge a common position again. Members are divided between the pro-US positions expressed mainly by Britain and those who want to give UN inspectors more time, with France pushing this line the strongest. Prime Minister Costas Simitis will chair the EU’s Spring Summit in Brussels on Friday. He leaves Athens tomorrow to prepare for the summit with meetings with Commission President Romano Prodi, the EU’s foreign policy and defense chief Javier Solana, among others. Sources close to the prime minister were quoted as saying that he would keep working to have the EU speak with one voice. But news media also quoted Simitis telling government officials and members of Parliament that he expected war to break out in the next few days. «Let’s hope it will be brief so there will not be serious consequences across the world,» Mega Channel quoted Simitis saying. Opposition leader Costas Karamanlis told a meeting of his New Democracy party: «We consider it necessary that the international community keep pushing the dictatorial regime of Iraq for its full disarmament and the restoration of democracy. But we do not want war. We insist on a drive for a peaceful solution.» Costas Laliotis, general secretary of Simitis’s PASOK party, who has taken part in anti-war demonstrations, pointed out the dilemma faced by the government. «Greece will not participate in a unilateral war, and we have said so. But there are some international agreements which must be kept to,» he said. Wrapping up a two-day meeting of EU defense ministers on Saturday, Greece’s Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou said: «It’s difficult to be optimistic, but we can still try so long as there is still time… Things are difficult and the clouds of war are thickening.»