NATO countries block U.S. plan to protect Turkey from Iraq

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- An emergency NATO meeting failed Monday to end almost a month of deadlock on a U.S. request to make plans to protect Turkey in case of an Iraqi attack, as France, Germany and Belgium insisted more diplomacy is needed before readying for war.

Later Monday in Paris, Russia joined France and Germany in a joint declaration calling for strengthened U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin chose his words carefully, saying "We are against the war. ... At the moment, that's the view I have."

The veto in Brussels deepened divisions in the NATO alliance over Iraq, with American ambassador Nicholas Burns saying the move had plunged NATO into crisis. Afterward, Turkey invoked the alliance's mutual defense treaty, calling unscheduled consultations.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States and the 16 other countries in the alliance would go ahead with planning "outside of NATO if necessary.

"We are already going about that task," he said at a news conference at the Pentagon.

Sending wrong message

The French and German view is that Turkey does not need the equipment now, and that planning for Turkey's defense now could send the wrong signal.

"If Turkey is ever attacked, we will stand at its side, that is not an issue here," said Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt at a news conference. "At issue is, are we at a logical point where we are at war?"

NATO's military commanders say the planning for the limited support for Turkey can be wrapped up within a few days once they get the go-ahead, but actual deployment of the NATO units will need further approval from the 19 allies and could take up to a month.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said talks would resume Tuesday morning and, in a pointed warning to the three holdouts, hinted at serious risks to the 19-member alliance's solidarity.

"The longer this dispute goes on, the worse it is going to be for the alliance, and for them," Robertson warned.

The debate began in mid-January. But a French official at NATO headquarters said Paris saw no reason to change its position until at least Friday, when the U.N. weapons inspectors are due to report to the Security Council in New York.

In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac said Iraq's weapons capability must be neutralized as quickly as possible but that waging war to do so should be considered only as a last resort.

Rumsfeld said Turkey needed aerial surveillance and anti-missile equipment as well as detection devices for biological and chemical weapons to protect against Iraqi counterstrikes.

Turkey is the only NATO country bordering Iraq, and is expected to be a base for U.S. troops opening up a northern front in Iraq should war happen.

Turkish officials did not comment on the results of Monday's emergency consultations. But they sought earlier to soothe tempers.

"They did not veto the protection of Turkey," Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in Ankara. "These countries have problems with the timing."

The predominantly Muslim country was disappointed in December not get a firm date to start negotiations to join the European Union, which includes France, Germany and Belgium, as well as nations such as Britain, Spain and Italy which have strongly supported the call for NATO to start military planning. Turkish officials have not linked the two issues.

The EU has said it will start membership negotiations with Turkey "without delay" if it meets the bloc's standards of human rights and democracy in December 2004.

On Monday, Turkey's top politician ruled out foreign command of Turkish troops in case of an operation in Iraq, calling it an "insult" and "humiliation" for Turks.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was referring to a U.S. statement that Turkish troops would have to come under the command of a U.S.-led coalition in case of an operation in northern Iraq. Washington wants to use Turkey to open a northern front in any Iraq war, but is seeking to reassure Iraqi Kurdish factions which fear that Turkey will take advantage of the war to strengthen its position in the region.

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