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New NATO chief a hard sell in Muslim world

Strasbourg — Anders Fogh Rasmussen is a poster boy in Western capitals but it remains to be seen how the smooth-talking Dane’s nomination Saturday as NATO secretary general will go down in the Muslim world.

The Danish prime minister supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and rigorously defended a Danish newspaper in 2005 when it published satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that sparked anger among Muslims across the world.

The 56-year-old was such a staunch ally and close friend of former US president George W. Bush that the Danish opposition sarcastically branded him "one of the boys."

Rasmussen hailed Bush’s defence of "the ideals of liberty and against submission" and supported the jailing of hundreds of suspected terrorists without trial at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.

He and Bush met eight times during the latter’s presidency, and in 2003 Rasmussen took the plunge with a decision that sparked massive protests at home: to join Bush’s "Coalition of the Willing" to topple Saddam Hussein.

"In the war on terror, we must protect the democratic states," he told the Danish parliament in 2003, insisting that: "Terrorists should stay locked up for as long as they pose a threat."

Denmark also has troops in Afghanistan, NATO’s biggest mission.

But what may most count most against him as the head of the world’s biggest military alliance is the episode when Denmark found itself at the centre of an international firestorm with the Mohammed cartoons episode in 2005.

Rasmussen defended tooth and nail the Jyllands-Posten daily’s right to publish the drawings.

Even at the height of violent and sometimes deadly protests across the Muslim world in early 2006, as Danes and Danish interests abroad were being attacked, he insisted: "In Denmark freedom of the press is not negotiable."

Turkey, a Muslim country and a NATO member, almost scuppered his bid to succeed Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as NATO secretary general at the alliance’s 60th anniversary summit.

"How can those who have failed to contribute to peace, contribute to peace in the future? We have doubts… and my personal opinion is negative," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan thundered.

The Turkish prime minister also said Rasmussen failed to act on Turkish requests to ban Roj TV, arguing the channel is the mouthpiece of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),

The PKK has fought a deadly 24-year separatist campaign in Turkey’s southeast and is listed as a terrorist group by much of the international community.

"NATO is an institution supposed to guarantee peace, but the media outlet of the terrorist organisation in my country is Denmark-based," Erdogan said.

"We have asked them many times to stop it, but he could not or did not do that … How is this supposed to be keeping peace?" he said.

But among other NATO members, Rasmussen fits the bill.

Germany, Britain and France were said to be enthusiastic supporters, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel gushingly describing him as an "excellent choice" who would be a "strong secretary general."

He speaks English and French fluently, and his jovial charisma is known to rapidly dissolve into cool austerity when the situation demands. He is also renowned for an ability to reach political compromise.

After nearly eight years at the helm of Denmark’s centre-right coalition government, he is considered "a good organiser and a skilled tactician with enormous self-control," according to political analyst Hans Engell.

Rasmussen is married with two daughters and a son and recently became a grandfather. He works hard to stay in shape, skiing, kayaking and running.

All the exercise must pay off, as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi once described him as "the most handsome prime minister in Europe."