Blair gets the cold shoulder at Berlin summit
Luke Harding in Berlin
Sunday September 21, 2003
Tony Blair's efforts to seek agreement with France and Germany over Iraq suffered an embarrassing setback yesterday when French President Jacques Chirac bluntly insisted that power should be handed back to Iraqis in a 'few months'.
Speaking after a meeting with Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Blair sought to set aside his diplomatic feud with Paris and Berlin - and said all three leaders believed the United Nations should play a 'key role' in rebuilding Iraq. 'Whatever differences there have been over Iraq, it is important that France and Britain and Germany should work together,' Blair said.
But his conciliatory remarks did little to hide the continuing split between Britain and the United States and France - and, to a lesser extent, Germany - over the timetable for returning Iraq to domestic rule. Chirac yesterday repeated his demand that the UN be given a 'significant and operational role' in running the country. The transfer of sovereignty should be 'immediate', he added. While Schröder was less outspoken, it was clear that Germany supports the French position.
Schröder, who hosted yesterday's summit, greeted Blair with a polite, effusive handshake. By contrast, he gave the French President an enormous bear hug, a sign of the two countries' continuing political warmth.
Chirac's unambiguous comments make it less rather than more likely that agreement can be reached next week at the UN on a new resolution drafted by Washington. All three leaders are flying to New York for discussions, with the German Chancellor meeting George Bush for the first time in more than a year.
The Bush administration is offering to give the UN an increased role in the Iraqi political process in the hope that UN involvement will be enough to get other countries to provide troops for Iraq. In reality, though, the US will still rule the country. 'We all want to see a stable Iraq. We all want to see Iraq make a transfer to democratic government as swiftly as possible,' Blair said yesterday.
There was no disagreement with the principle that the UN should play a key role in Iraq, Blair added. But British and American officials have made it clear they believe the French demand that power be transferred in months is 'totally unrealistic'.
The fragile situation inside Iraq was dramatically confirmed yesterday when gunmen shot one of only three women members of Iraq's governing council. Aqila al-Hashimi was leaving her Baghdad home when unidentified men opened fire. US doctors were last night treating her for abdominal wounds. The US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer condemned the attack, saying he was 'shocked and saddened'.
Yesterday's meeting in Berlin was the first between Europe's three biggest players since the fall of Saddam five months ago - and their public feud which saw Britain, the US's closest ally, pitted against France and Germany, its biggest critics. Yesterday Blair was asked whether he had gone to Berlin to heal the rift as an envoy of Bush.
'He has been invited as Tony Blair. He came as Tony Blair and I'm quite definite he is going to return as Tony Blair,' Schröder joked. It had been 'fascinating' to listen to the Prime Minister, he added.
US officials have indicated their latest diplomatic strategy on Iraq is to isolate the French, ignore the Germans and buy off the Russians. There are some signs this is working, with Berlin much keener than Paris to mend its relationship with Washington.
However, in Moscow President Putin said Russian troops would not serve in any international force in Iraq. 'We are not even considering this matter,' Russian news agencies reported him as saying. Putin meets Bush at Camp David on Friday and Saturday.