A chorus of European leaders indicated yesterday that they would oppose military action against the states identified by George Bush as an "axis of evil", as the split between Europe and Washington widened further.
Germany led the protests, sending a shrill, clear signal that it wants nothing to do with an attack on Iraq, named alongside Iran and North Korea in President Bush's state of the union address a week ago.
Berlin's deputy foreign minister, Ludger Vollmer, said: "We Europeans warn against it. There is no indication, no proof that Iraq is involved in the terrorism we have been talking about for the last few months... this terror argument cannot be used to legitimise old enmities."
German leaders have repeatedly expressed opposition in recent months to an extension of the military war on terrorism. "Iraq is certainly a bad state. We see few positive signs there," Mr Vollmer said yesterday. "But the solution cannot lie in attacking it militarily."
Other EU member states said they planned to stick with their dialogues with Iran and North Korea. Diplomats in Brussels said yesterday there were no plans to review relations, in line with the union's policy of engaging with countries rather than seeking to isolate them.
Echoing statements by Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, EU sources insisted it was important to encourage moderates in Iran against clerical and hardline groups, including those apparently responsible for an arms shipment to the Palestinian Authority.
Asked about Mr Bush's approach to the "axis of evil", European Commission spokesman Gunnar Weigand said senior EU representatives "do not agree with that kind of policy".
The EU shared America's aims on human rights, terrorism and weapons proliferation, he said, but "what we do not share is the policy desired to achieve these objectives. We believe that engagement and rapprochement... should be used to achieve these aims."
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, urged the US to act multilaterally and not as a "global unilateralist".
Privately, EU diplomats have dismissed Mr Bush's remarks as being made to suit a domestic audience, and say they are viewed with unease by the secretary of state, Colin Powell, and other doves in the cabinet. Publicly, they can do little more than put on a brave face.
The objections are likely to further enrage the Bush administration, which responded with fury to a comment by Mr Straw on Friday that the "axis of evil" speech was more of a vote-winning tactic in forthcoming US elections than a military strategy.
Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said: "This is not about American politics, and I assume that when the British government speaks about foreign policy, it's not about British politics."
EU foreign ministers are likely to discuss the issue when they meet in the Spanish town of Caceres at the weekend, where they will have to tread carefully over a request by Iraq to hold talks with Spain, holder of the EU's rotating presidency - a clear attempt to exploit transatlantic differences.
European leaders remain dubious about US charges that Iran exports terror or has links with al-Qaida.
The Russian defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, said on Sunday that there was no evidence that Iran had connections with terrorist organisations. He said Russia had its own list of "rogue states" and named the US's ally Saudi Arabia, which Moscow says helps fund Chechen separatists.
The controversy came as the Bush cabinet asked Congress to double US aid to Jordan to $448m (£317m) in 2003, in a move to lay the ground for potential military action against its neighbour, Iraq.
The administration wants to give Jordan $198m in the form of weapons, up from $75m this year. Economic support funds would rise from $150m to $250m, according to budget documents.
"The money will be used to improve border controls targeting the flow of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, and to support financial training, trade and investment and to strengthen educational opportunities," the White House office of management and budget said.
Iraq, Jordan's neighbour to the east, stands accused by the US of developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. On its western border, Jordan has sought to prevent the smuggling of arms to Palestinians fighting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.