AFP: European Union foreign ministers gathered Tuesday ahead of an EU leaders' summit this week to tackle aid for Iraq and Iran's nuclear drive.
With the outcome of the US presidential election and crisis at the European Commission at home to tackle, the EU leaders have plenty to discuss when they convene on Thursday and Friday. AFP

BRUSSELS - European Union foreign ministers gathered Tuesday ahead of an EU leaders' summit this week to tackle aid for Iraq and Iran's nuclear drive.

With the outcome of the US presidential election and crisis at the European Commission at home to tackle, the EU leaders have plenty to discuss when they convene on Thursday and Friday.

Their foreign ministers were to prepare one of the summit highlights by thrashing out an aid package to be announced by their heads of government after talks with Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi on Thursday.

The dinner encounter between the EU leaders and Allawi may gain added piquancy depending on the results of the US vote, which may -- depending on how close the race is -- be known the day before.

The EU package will feed into an Iraq aid conference in Egypt in late November.

The European Commission -- the 25-nation bloc's executive arm -- has already unveiled 30 million euros to support the election process running up to Iraqi polls planned for January.

The EU is also being pressed by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to finance a force to protect UN personnel in Iraq.

The UN Baghdad headquarters was closed in August 2003 after a car bomb killed 22 people. Earlier this year a small UN team returned to Iraq and about 250 staff are expected in total to help organize the January polls.

"There is a legal problem to finance the UN protection force (from the EU budget)," an EU source said.

"We've been looking for a legal solution; we hope to have one by the time Allawi comes."

The EU foreign ministers were also to prepare the ground for summit debate on other international headaches such as Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Officials from Iran and the EU's three most influential powers -- Britain, France and Germany -- are to resume talks in Paris Friday with time running out for Iran to accept the Europeans' offer to suspend uranium enrichment in order to avoid possible UN Security Council sanctions.

"We need to signal clearly to the Iranians that time is getting short," the EU source said.

The ministers were also to go over preparations for an EU-Russia summit at The Hague on November 11.

The European Commission is urging the EU to stand firm against Russian "cherry-picking" of member states to promote its own interests, the source said.

And at Poland's request, the ministers were to discuss Belarus, after a referendum on October 17 gave the former Soviet republic's autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, the right to run for office for life.

The EU, like the United States, already has a visa ban in place against Belarusian leaders, but is keen that further sanctions do not hurt the country's people.

"We don't want to give the message to Belarus's people that we are abandoning them," the EU source said.