Iraqi President Finds Friends in Europe

BRUSSELS – The European Union and some of its largest member states have reaffirmed their support for Iraq this week under the gaze of Iraq’s interim President Ghazi al-Yawar and amid rising tensions in the country.

Top European Union (EU) officials have offered their support – both financial and political – for Iraq during a week that has seen an increased spate of bombings and kidnaps in the war-torn country.

U.S.-appointed Yawar concluded his European tour in Brussels which took him to Berlin, Rome and Warsaw. The visit was a part of efforts by the appointed government to seek support and legitimacy at a time when rising violence in Iraq threatens to undermine preparations for elections scheduled to be held in January.

Yawar, or Sheikh al-Yawar as he was better known before his appointment, is leader of the Shamar tribe, one of the largest in Iraq. He is an engineer educated in the United States.

He was appointed president, a largely symbolic post, after the first U.S. choice for the post, former Iraqi foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, refused the job. Mortar attacks greeted the swearing-in of Yawar in a message of what Iraqi militants thought of a president of Iraq appointed by the Bush administration.

Yawar has not received unqualified support outside Iraq either. Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher said that the region would like to see an Iraqi government that is sovereign and that represents the Iraqi people.

Although Yawar’s European tour got off to a difficult start when he postponed a visit to Paris to meet French President Jacques Chirac after two French journalists were taken hostage in Iraq, the rest of his trip has helped to improve European-Iraqi relations.

Arriving in Germany Sept. 8, Yawar held talks with German President Horst Koehler, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, foreign minister Joschka Fischer and development cooperation minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul.

Amongst a range of issues the Iraqi president and his hosts discussed German assistance to Iraq, including the reduction of the Iraqi debt owed to Germany and Berlin’s help in training of Iraqi security forces.

The visit marked a turning point in Iraqi-German relations with the confirmation of strengthening relations over humanitarian assistance and help with resurrecting public services and infrastructure.

The meeting was particularly significant as the two countries only recently renewed diplomatic relations after a virtual silence between them since the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

In Italy, Yawar found continuing support from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq over a year ago.

In return, Yawar said he would do all he could to obtain the release of two Italian women aid workers held hostage in Iraq.

Reaching the climax of his tour in Brussels, Yawar met the EU’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana Sept. 14, who confirmed the solidarity expressed by fellow European leaders, saying that the 25-member bloc would do all it could to ensure that the elections go ahead as planned.

"We support the political process in Iraq of which the elections are an essential element. The European Union will continue to assist the interim government with the elections and will provide its support as soon as possible, given the elections deadline for January 2005," he said in a statement.

Condemning the bombings and hostage-taking in the country, Solana said the EU was looking at ways it can help Iraq, including training judges or police, help in observing elections or giving technical assistance to set up a special court.

Solana reiterated the EU’s conviction that the "presence and role of the United Nations in Iraq is crucial for the reconstruction of the country."

EU foreign ministers agreed this week to send a new team of experts to Baghdad in the next few weeks to produce proposals to put to an EU summit in November, which Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will attend.

Iraq was also the subject of debate in the European Parliament Sept. 15 at the foreign affairs committee. However, the discussion was carried out in the absence of Yawar, who had canceled his visit to the parliament earlier in the week.

Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said that although the bloc had been divided over its decision to go to war in Iraq, it was now united in its support for the reconstruction of the country.

Bot echoed Solana’s eagerness to respond to a UN appeal to fund security for UN staff in Iraq and hoped that the bloc would soon be in a position to spell out a "clear-cut offer" to the Iraqi administration.

He indicated that by Nov. 5, when EU heads of state will gather for their biannual summit, the bloc would be able to make "a precise offer of help" in the reconstruction of Iraq.

"The Dutch presidency is doing its utmost to ensure that the Union’s contribution comes to fruition. We are seeking offers from member states," he said, adding that EU joint funds could also be used.

Chris Patten, in what was likely to be his last speech to Parliament in his role as EU’s external relations commissioner, responded by saying that he hoped that a further $240 million would be pledged for the country next year, in addition to the $240 million had been allocated for Iraq this year.

However, Patten warned that the ongoing violence in Iraq threatens how that money can be spent. "The hazardous security climate . . . obviously limits the pace of disbursement," he said.

In spite of such a positive Europe-wide response, Yawar admitted that there were growing problems in Iraq.

Speaking to journalists Wednesday, Yawar said that "terrorists" are threatening the upcoming elections, but insisted that they would still go ahead.

"We are trying to implement democracy as we are heading towards elections in January. And by God’s will, we want to have it on time. It is very important to us," he said.