GENEVA — Fears are escalating among some of?the U.S.’s principal trading partners that the outbreak of the war with Iraq could stall, or even derail, the Doha global trade talks, senior diplomats said.

This story first appeared in the March 21, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The preliminary assessments in trade circles are that even if the war is brief, it will distract political leaders at least until June, given the expected post-war debate over reconstruction and the future of Iraq.

But a?protracted conflict that drags on for months could derail preparations for the crucial Cancun trade summit in September, the same sources said.

In contrast to all the mounting apprehensions, the U.S. remains bullish the war will not scuttle the World Trade Organization-sponsored talks, which face a Jan. 1, 2005 deadline.

“The U.S. played a key role in launching the Doha trade negotiations and remains very committed to successful negotiations to open markets and promote economic growth and development,” said a spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.

But many envoys do not share the optimism of Washington. “Nothing is moving, so some World Trade Organization-member countries may use the war as a pretext to put off decisions on touchy briefs like agriculture,” said a senior WTO diplomat, who declined to be named.

Meanwhile, WTO chief Supachai Panitchpakdi, whose agency is sponsoring the talks, Thursday held “strategy meetings” in a bid to try to ensure that talks continue and do not effectively grind to a halt.

Sergio Marchi, Canada’s WTO ambassador, said the 145 members of the WTO can concentrate on the Doha mandate, but said, “We’re all exposed to the international environment and the forces at play.”

A senior Japanese trade official said, “If the war is short, in economic terms it may have a positive effect and provide a good chance and opportunity for the WTO. But if it lasts longer it will darken this perspective.”

Top trade negotiators from both industrialized and developing countries reckon that even if WTO diplomats concentrate on the Doha process, back in their capitals, the focus is on the war.

At the moment, said one envoy, “it’s difficult to ask ministers to think about the WTO.”

Similarly, a WTO ambassador from an Asian nation said the war “is going to make things difficult” as there’s going to be a lack of focus on the trade talks.

The envoy said all the attention will be on?what happens in Iraq after the conflict.

The official said the current crisis “does not augur well for Cancun.”

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