In a report on EU-Iraq relations, Greek conservative Giorgos Dimitrakopoulos said the key to reversing the disastrous security situation more than two years after the US-led invasion was to phase out the Western military presence.

"The problem is that foreign troops are still in the country. I think it is going to be critical that they be replaced by a UN peacekeeping force," he told the EU assembly on Wednesday, acknowledging it could not be done overnight.

Britain, which has the second-largest troop contingent in Iraq after the US, responded sceptically to the suggestion.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the legislature he agreed that the security situation was poor and that over time foreign troops needed to be reduced and replaced by Iraqi security forces, which were gradually being trained.

"On the issue of whether there could be a UN blue-hatted force, I have no difficulty about that in principle. The only issue is actually encouraging other countries to come forward. Whether we can achieve that ... remains to be seen," Straw said.

War differences

"But on the overall objective of overseas forces, coalition forces, being reduced and then leaving, and the Iraqis taking full control for themselves, we are absolutely in full agreement," he added.

He acknowledged that the UN mandate for the current multinational force expires in December unless it is renewed.

Straw is sceptical that countries
would contribute to a UN force

The British foreign minister said the Iraqi government could ask foreign troops to leave at any time, and if they did so the troops would leave immediately.

While Straw and Dimitrakopoulos, as well as External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, urged the parliament to set aside past differences over the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, many members called that an illusion.

Speakers on the left and centre of the assembly said the US-led invasion, justified by the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction that were never found, was the root cause of the current violence and abductions in Iraq.

Ferrero-Waldner said the only way for Iraq to establish security was to address the causes of the violence by adopting an inclusive constitution, giving the Sunni Arab population a fair place, and gaining the cooperation of Iraq's neighbours.

The EU is preparing to open a representative office in Baghdad under the protection of the British embassy and has begun training Iraqi police and justice officials as part of a growing cooperation programme, she added.