NATO battles to avoid Franco-US split on Iraq

11th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, June 11 (AFP) - Less than three weeks before a summit in Istanbul, the US is increasing pressure on NATO to accept a bigger role in Iraq, but faces stiff opposition from allies led by France, officials said Friday.

BRUSSELS, June 11 (AFP) - Less than three weeks before a summit in Istanbul, the US is increasing pressure on NATO to accept a bigger role in Iraq, but faces stiff opposition from allies led by France, officials said Friday.

In particular the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - which suffered an unprecedented split during the Iraq crisis - is mulling US President George W. Bush's call for it to consider helping to train the Iraqi army.

"I would anticipate intensive discussions" on possible options, said one official at NATO's Brussels headquarters, ahead of the alliance's June 28-29 summit in Turkey.

But it appears unlikely that the summit will produce any concrete decisions on the issue, in particular as it will come only a few days before the June 30 handover of power in the war-scarred country, said a diplomat.

The most likely scenario is that the Istanbul summit will adopt a political declaration which leaves open the possibility of an expanded role for NATO in Iraq, he said.

In any case, any collective role for NATO - that is separate from the national contributions already made in Iraq by 16 of the alliance's 26 members - would be relatively modest.

Bush himself, speaking in the margins of a Group of Eight (G8) summit, said Thursday that he would not expect NATO - which requires unanimity for all decisions - to contribute troops for Iraq. France and Germany have stated categorically that they will not send soldiers there.

Apart from training Iraqi troops, other options include taking over command of a currently Polish-run division of the multi-national force in Iraq or to help monitor Iraq's borders. NATO already gives logistical support to the Polish division.

NATO officials, inevitably, are keen to play down differences, and above all the risk of a repeat of the crisis which nearly ripped the alliance apart in the run-up to the Iraq war.

"I think it is important to recognize the difference in tone" (from last year)," said Daniel Keohane of the Centre for European Reform, adding that both Washington and Paris were keen to avoid a repetition of the crisis.

"Both (French President Jacques) Chirac and Bush want to emphasize the positive," he said, adding that Chirac did not rule out a NATO role in Iraq at the G8 meeting, but "his point is to wait and see what the Iraqis ask for."

Fundamentally, he said: "I think what the French want is to give a message to Washington that having NATO do things isn't a problem but having the US just come and kind of boss NATO into doing things is the issue."

President Bush made his call for a bigger NATO role the day after securing unanimous backing for a UN Security Council resolution on the handover of power in Iraq.

Chirac immediately poured cold water on the idea, saying any NATO "interference" in Iraq "appears to us to run great risks, including the risk of a confrontation between the Christian West and the Muslim East."

Analysts pointed out that France also expressed reservations last year about NATO's role in Afghanistan, but ultimately gave ground for the alliance to take over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there.

Above all Paris doesn't want to be seen to be bossed around.

"If the Iraqis ask then (France) will consider it but they don't want to be seen just beating Bush's drums," said Keohane.

© AFP

Subject: French news

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