Greece hopes for last-minute deal

Even as war in Iraq loomed, Greece, holder of the EU presidency, vowed to keep working until the last moment to achieve a peaceful solution. Prime Minister Costas Simitis was scheduled to leave for Brussels today to prepare for the EU’s Spring Summit he will chair on Thursday and Friday. But with US President George W. Bush expected to announce an ultimatum in the early hours of this morning (Greek time) for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to flee into exile or face a US-led invasion, Greek officials had few illusions of being able to forge a common position among the EU’s badly divided members, as they had managed to do in January and February. Foreign Minister Panos Beglitis, in an interview with state radio NET, was blunt in his assessment of the situation. «The presidency, I would say, has exhausted all possibilities and room for movement in the framework of the EU’s institutional procedures. However, you see that events are moving and, basically, certain EU countries have taken a position outside the EU framework, with the United States,» Beglitis said in reference to Britain and Spain. «The situation is difficult, no one should hide this. And we should not have the illusion that the EU will be able to shape a common position,» Beglitis added. Foreign Minister George Papandreou avoided condemnation of Britain and Spain. «Europe has a common position. But there are disagreements in the approach to what is possible. We do not hide this. I think that this whole crisis, no matter how it turns out, should be a cause for Europe’s voice to be strengthened internationally,» he said after a meeting with Simitis. Asked whether the Greek presidency was upset by Britain and Spain, Papandreou said, «We will make our evaluation at the end.» But sources said the meeting discussed the need to show up the problems that behavior such as that of Britain, Spain and Portugal cause to the efforts for a joint European defense and foreign policy. Simitis told his aides that if the hostilities had begun by Thursday this would dominate the summit agenda, but that issues that the Greek presidency wanted to promote should still be put forward. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso briefed him on Sunday’s meeting in the Azores with Bush and the British and Spanish prime ministers. US Secretary of State Colin Powell called Foreign Minister Papandreou and told him that the United States, Britain and Spain would not submit their proposal for a Security Council resolution on Iraq and that Bush would address the US public. Papandreou spoke also with the foreign ministers of Germany, Britain and Spain as well as with chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix. «Even at this late moment we are working for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. The Greek presidency, in accordance with the mandate we have and which expresses us, is making all the necessary contacts so as to see what needs to be done to avoid this war,» Papandreou said. Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou said Greece would stick close to its EU partners during the war. «This is not a Greek issue nor can Greece avert this development. But we must line up responsibly with our partners,» he said. The Church of Greece said after a meeting of the Holy Synod yesterday that it was preparing humanitarian aid for Iraq in case of war. Officials said the Greek Embassy in Baghdad was being vacated. Security has been stepped up at airports, embassies, public utilities and other possible targets of terrorist attacks.

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