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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 12:47 GMT
Far-right lauds Haider's Baghdad trip
Saddam Hussein and Joerg Haider
Mr Haider has nurtured ties with controversial leaders
Austria's Freedom Party has defended far-right politician Joerg Haider's meeting in Baghdad with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who used the occasion to urge Europe to distance itself from the United States.

Europe has a double responsibility: to teach America wisdom and to keep away from the damaging consequences resulting from US policies

Saddam Hussein
The party said Mr Haider's trip to the Iraqi capital was a "courageous" humanitarian initiative designed to supplement the activities of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, although a ministry spokesman indicated his department had not been fully informed of the mission.

Speaking next to Mr Haider on Tuesday, the Iraqi president launched into a scathing attack on the US - and urged Washington to consider why the terrorist attacks of 11 September had occurred in America, and not in Europe.

"Europe has a double responsibility: to teach America wisdom and to keep away from the damaging consequences resulting from US policies," the official Iraqi news agency quoted him as saying.

'Evil' Iraq

Correspondents say the trip appears likely to cause some embarrassment among members of the conservative People's Party, with whom the Freedom Party sits in the Vienna government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin weighed into the Iraq debate earlier this week

Last year, conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel was received in Washington by President George Bush, in what was seen as a sign of the acceptance of his controversial coalition by the international community.

Iraq, along with North Korea and Iran, was branded part of an "axis of evil" during President George Bush's State of the Union speech last month, and there has been steady speculation that the country may be the next target of US military action.

A series of European leaders have since expressed their concerns about the direction of US foreign policy, warning the US against becoming unilateralist in its war against terrorism.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressly urged Washington not to take military action against Iraq unless it had the backing of the international community.

Austrian ties

Iraq has also been seeking to improve its ties with the outside world in the face of renewed US military threats.

President Hussein said during his meeting with Mr Haider that he hoped to develop relations with Austria, and strengthen contacts between his own ruling Baath party and the Freedom Party.

Freedom Party delegates have in the past travelled to Iraq on "fact-finding" missions, returning with reports on the humanitarian situation in the country.

Mr Haider has also personally nurtured ties in the Middle East.

Last November he travelled to Iran and Syria, and was recently seen in Vienna with the son of Libya leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Two years ago he caused a stir when he started providing cheap supplies of petrol in the province of Carinthia, where he is governor, shortly after a meeting with the Libyan leader.

See also:

11 Feb 02 | Europe
Putin warns US on Iraq
06 Feb 02 | Americas
Analysis: The 'axis of evil' debate
05 Feb 02 | Middle East
Powell 'rejects' Iraq talks
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