NEWS

Simitis: ‘Times are difficult’

Greece, and most of the rest of the EU over which it currently presides, is watching events in Iraq unfold like a bemused, powerless bystander, as the United States declared, late on Monday night, that diplomacy had exhausted its potential and war effectively became the only option in dealing with Iraq. Prime Minister Costas Simitis presided over an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday afternoon. Earlier, he briefed President Costis Stephanopoulos on the situation. Before retiring to the president’s office, the two were heard to agree that «times are difficult.» This stock phrase perfectly reflected the Greek position, concerned about the consequences of war, regretful that diplomacy could not work, but also unable to influence the course of events and unwilling to rock the boat too much by openly criticizing the US. «Our position is that violence is the last resort and this last resort needs to be sanctioned by the United Nations,» Simitis said after the cabinet meeting. He added, however, that «Greece will abide by whatever commitments it has undertaken under treaties it has signed,» which meant that it would allow US planes to use its airspace and that it would provide logistical and other support as a NATO member. Greece will have almost no direct involvement in operations, apart from a frigate patrolling the seas off the Arabian peninsula and a few pilots flying NATO’s AWACS early warning and electronic warfare systems. At the cabinet meeting, Simitis instructed his ministers to step up security measures, ensure adequate oil supplies and refrain from statements that could agitate public opinion. «We must all keep our cool,» he said. Simitis is also concerned that the imminent war has hijacked the agenda of the EU’s Spring Summit, to be held in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. He insisted, however, that the summit would also take up the topics prepared by the Greek presidency. Although Simitis wants to coax a common position on Iraq from his 14 EU partners at the summit, he privately told aides he is concerned that events may have stricken a grave blow to European cohesion. Foreign Minister George Papandreou also expressed regret that the EU had not arrived at a common position and emphasized that the United Nations «must be (present) in all further developments at (center stage)». Opposition leader Costas Karamanlis took a similar position to Simitis’s, expressing regret that diplomatic efforts did not bear fruit. He also asked for emergency measures to protect the economy, «more vulnerable than other European economies, as a result of the government’s policy.» Karamanlis also refrained from criticizing the US. The left-wing opposition, on the contrary, was vociferous in its criticism. «The United States and its allies are about to commit a new crime against humanity, an unjust war aiming at control of the area’s oil and the extension of their military and geopolitical domination,» said Communist Party Secretary-General Aleka Papariga, who also accused the Greek government of actively aiding the US. She also asked for a parliamentary debate on the issue. Greek diplomats, along with UN weapons inspectors, evacuated Baghdad yesterday. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a warning to Greek citizens «to postpone any visit to Kuwait under current circumstances.»