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NATO leaders fail to agree on new alliance chief

Baden-Baden — Leaders of the NATO military alliance failed Friday to agree on a new secretary general, despite pressure from Germany to overcome Turkish opposition to favourite Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

"There has been no decision now. The discussion will continue into tomorrow on the succession to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai, after a working dinner between heads of state and government.

The threat of a Turkish veto hangs over the nomination of Denmark’s Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen due to his defence of a series of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed, which sparked anger in the Muslim world.

But Appathurai refused to comment on which candidates were discussed or how many of the 28 NATO nations raised objections, saying only that the leaders were "not being particularly brief".

"We always arrive at consensus at NATO. We will arrive at consensus on this issue as well. Until then, the only way to describe it is that we don’t have consensus," he said.

"We will get there, this alliance always gets there," he added, after the first session of a two-day summit hosted by France and Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed confidence earlier that a decision would be reached on Friday and said Rasmussen, Danish prime minister, would be an "excellent choice."

"I am convinced that we will name a new NATO secretary general this evening," Merkel told reporters in Baden-Baden, southern Germany, at a joint press conference with US President Barack Obama.

She said she would "do everything" to persuade other NATO leaders to back the Dane, who has the support of other alliance heavyweights Britain, France and the United States.

"I believe that Mr. Rasmussen would be an excellent choice," she said. "If we choose him he would be a strong secretary general."

According to Danish press reports, Rasmussen has privately announced his candidacy to take over from Dutch diplomat Scheffer, whose term ends on July 31.

But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is angered by Rasmussen’s failure to ban a Denmark-based TV station linked to Kurdish rebels and by his stance during the crisis over Danish cartoons.

NATO’s secretary general is chosen by an informal process involving negotiations behind the scenes and in corridors at NATO headquarters in Brussels, but all 28 nations must agree on the nominee.

It remained unclear whether Turkey, a mainly Muslim nation, would veto the move.

In Istanbul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ruling party has Islamist roots, urged NATO to find an alternative candidate.

"Why do we have to stick to a single name? Aren’t there other alternatives?" he told reporters. "We wish to find another person with whom the issue will be settled."

But Turkey is represented at the summit by President Abdullah Gul, who has appeared slightly more conciliatory.

Rasmussen invoked Danes’ right to freedom of expression to defend the publication of the cartoons in September 2005.

NATO is fighting Islamist militants in Afghanistan while trying to work with neighbouring Pakistan and reach out to Iran for help, and the alliance is therefore particularly wary of how it is perceived in the Muslim world.

Potential candidates for NATO’s top civilian job — which has only ever been held by European nations in the alliance’s 60-year history — almost never declare their intention to run.

Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere appears to be the only other strong candidate left.

His Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski said earlier Friday that he was not in the running and Canada was low key about the chances of its Defence Minister Peter MacKay.