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Rift over Iraq is dividing Europe

Unity of the West, stature of NATO and U.N. at stake

LONDON — Despite efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to limit the damage, the bitter dispute over Iraq has split Europe between countries that support America and those who see it as a global menace.

The division shows Europe's inability to create a united, credible voice in world affairs and threatens the unity of the West and decades of close trans-Atlantic relations, politicians and experts say.

"If the Americans and the Europeans don't exercise great care in the next few weeks and months we're going to be left with an absolute shambles," said Francois Heilsbourg, an independent defense analyst based in London.

European governments also are worried about the damage the rift is causing to the institutions that have been the foundation of Western unity for decades — NATO, the European alliance with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. So far, analysts say, nobody is saying how it can be fixed.

Britain, Spain and Italy support the United States, which has said Iraq's time to give up its weapons of mass destruction is running out and is mobilizing for military action. The Bush administration has proposed a March 17 deadline for Saddam Hussein to disarm but said it could go to war without U.N. approval.

France, Russia and China — which along with Britain and the United States have veto power as permanent U.N. Security Council members — are leading opposition to the war.

"This is a very important episode. . . . The unhappiness on the European side with the unilateralist, militarist, pre-emptive inclinations of this (U.S.) administration is pretty deep," said analyst Michael Emerson of the Center for European Studies, a think tank in Brussels, Belgium.

The unease is reflected among many ordinary Europeans, millions of whom have rallied to protest U.S. policy on Iraq. A European Union poll in March reported a majority of Europeans see America as a threat to peace — 46 percent to 32 percent in a survey of 16,074 people across the 15-nation bloc. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

If the United States chooses increasingly to go its own way internationally rather than seek Western consensus, trans-Atlantic cooperation, vital to political and economic stability, could be badly damaged, analysts say.

NATO, torn by wrangling over its possible role in a war with Iraq, might never fully recover, analysts say. To have real credibility, members and opponents of a defense alliance must believe it will act if faced with a threat — something that is now in doubt, they say.

Many fear the United Nations also is looking weak with the United States, Britain and other allies determined to act without its approval if necessary.

Disagreement on how to disarm Iraq has torn the EU down the middle, exposing deep divisions over whether it should be primarily a trade bloc or a global power with effective political and military muscle.

"The time has come where we need a confrontation on what are our strategic needs" in Europe, said Ulrike Guerot, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

France, which has never accepted its loss of global power, has long wanted a united Europe that could present an equal front and be a counterweight to what it sees as an overly powerful United States.

Britain and others oppose what they see as a drive for a federal state in which national governments would answer to the EU as a whole, giving up control of their foreign and security policies.

Looking ahead, analysts say Washington's relations with those nations that have defied it over Iraq will be badly strained, possibly for years to come. Talk of massive U.S. retaliation is played down, but trade and other areas, already under strain, could be badly hurt.

"The problem is spilling over into the economic field and the United States has adopted a negative attitude toward what it considers to be old Europe and vice versa," said Professor Pedro Videla of the University of Navarra in Spain.

The United States and the EU need each other and new ways to handle relations will have to be worked out, analysts say. But they add it may take years and the departure from office of some of the leaders who figure in the current dispute.