BERLIN-BRUSSELS: Transatlantic differences over Iraq turned bitterly personal on Thursday as political leaders in France and Germany hit back at the US defence secretary’s dismissal of their cherished alliance as representing “old Europe”.

So heated was the response to Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks, particularly among those on the right, that the French president, Jacques Chirac, appealed for calm.

Nato’s secretary-general, George Robertson, also tried to play down the rift, insisting that there was no row within the military alliance over providing logistical and other support for US-led action against Iraq. He said Washington’s European allies were divided only over timing of action.

But Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, confirmed that Berlin was working on a plan aimed at slowing the drift to war. The German representative on the UN security council is to call for a further report from the weapons inspectors to be delivered in mid-February.

“We want them to continue working,” Mr Fischer said after he and his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin, had appeared before a joint session of their countries’ parliamentary foreign affairs committees. “If they are to continue working, then they must also report.”

Shortly afterwards, he set off on a visit to Turkey, Egypt and Jordan in search of a peaceful solution to the crisis.

In responding to a reporter’s question about French and German qualms, Mr Rumsfeld hinted on Wednesday that Washington would turn to Nato’s new members in eastern Europe for support.

“You’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don’t,” he said. “I think that’s old Europe. If you look at the entire Nato Europe today, the centre of gravity is shifting to the east and there are a lot of new members.”

Mr Chirac’s spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said the president, who was visiting Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Franco-German friendship treaty, wanted to see the debate over Mr Rumsfeld’s remarks “take place with seriousness and calmness”. But back in Paris, the tone was one of spluttering outrage.

“If you knew what I felt like telling Mr. Rumsfeld . . . “ the ecology minister, Roselyne Bachelot, told a radio interviewer, before resorting to a well-known regional expression for a four-letter word. Her cabinet colleague, the finance minister, Francis Mer, said he was “profoundly vexed”.

Even the reaction of the government’s official spokesman, Jean-Francois Cope, was distinctly sardonic. Mr Rumsfeld would do well to listen to “old Europe”, he said.

“When one is an old continent, a continent with an old historic, cultural and economic tradition, one can sometimes inherit a certain wisdom, and wisdom can be a good adviser,” he said.

Germany’s centre-left government, which has had troubled relations with the US since last summer when the chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, ruled out German involvement in a war, made no official comment. The general secretary of the chancellor’s Social Democratic party was critical, but restrained. “Rumsfeld does not understand Europe,” said Olaf Scholz. “It is good to heed Europe.”

By far the strongest response came from the arch- conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union. Its spokesman on European affairs, Bernd Posselt, accused Mr Rumsfeld of “neo- colonialism”. He added: “The US has to learn that the European Union is a partner and not a protectorate.”

Washington last week formally asked its allies to help defend Turkey and provide Awac radar planes and ships to patrol the Mediterranean. But on Wednesday, Nato ambassadors postponed a decision on military planning after objections from Germany, France and other states worried about a slide towards war.

“We have not yet achieved a consensus on proposals that have been put forward,” Lord Robertson admitted. “There is a disagreement on timing by a small number of nations, but there is no disagreement on substance. This is not some sort of bust-up.”

But diplomats in Brussels said last night that Germany was unlikely to approve the same wish-list as long as the arms inspections were continuing.

“We knew the Germans had a problem, but we were surprised that the French joined them,” said one alliance official. Washington also wants to use Nato planning facilities and equipment and has suggested it could play a role in postwar humanitarian operations in Iraq, as it has done in Afghanistan.

The EU divisions are likely to resurface when foreign ministers meet in Brussels next Monday, hours before Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector, presents his long-awaited report to the UN security council.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.



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