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U.S. scales down request to NATO, countries reject it

Thursday, February 13, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- France, Germany and Belgium rejected a scaled-down U.S. proposal Wednesday for NATO preparations in case of war in Iraq, prolonging the alliance's worst internal crisis since the end of the Cold War.

"They haven't changed their mind," NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur said after talks broke up Wednesday night. "They still feel the time is not right for NATO to make a decision."

Emergency consultations that began Monday would resume on Thursday, but it was unclear when. "The strategy is to keep working, essentially," he said, adding that no new proposal was being considered.

For the past month, the holdouts have blocked the start of military planning to help defend Turkey -- the only NATO member bordering Iraq. France, Germany and Belgium say such a step could undercut U.N. efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis peacefully.

Washington and the 15 other NATO nations have reacted with increasingly harsh language, arguing the division weakens NATO's solemn bond of mutual defense and sends a dangerous message of disunity to Saddam Hussein.

Diplomats had said the three holdouts still wanted to link any decision at NATO to Friday's report to the U.N. Security Council on Iraq's cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors.

French President Jacques Chirac told his Turkish counterpart by phone Wednesday that France "would assume its obligations if Turkey were really threatened," said Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, in Paris.

But he stuck to France's position that it is not possible to make advance plans on Turkey's defense in the absence of a U.N. Security Council decision to use force against Iraq.

NATO ambassadors received the compromise proposal at a 90-minute morning session, after a day of frantic telephone contacts among capitals. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also made an unscheduled flight to Paris for talks on the Iraq crisis.

No peripheral requests

The compromise deals solely with defensive measures for Turkey and cuts out peripheral requests, such as stepping up guards at U.S. bases in Europe and replacing any NATO troops on peacekeeping duty in the Balkans who may be moved to the Gulf.

"We entered a new phase of the discussions," U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns said before the evening session began. But, he added, "It may take some time to get to the end."

Turkey expected it would be accepted, according to a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Ankara.

Earlier, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder also said his country would honor its NATO commitments in case of war, but would not say when Turkey's request to start preparations might be granted.

"I hope we can resolve that," he said after a meeting with his Spanish counterpart, Jose Maria Aznar, failed to resolve differences.

Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Didier Seeuws called the latest proposal "fundamentally different" but did not indicate whether Belgium would end its veto.

The new request focuses fully on Turkey's request for help against a possible Iraqi missile attack through the dispatch of AWACS radar planes, Patriot anti-missile batteries and specialized units to counter poison gas or germ warfare attacks.

Alliance officials said the excluded issues were being dealt with bilaterally. Germany, for example, deployed hundreds of soldiers at U.S. bases last month.

Deep anger

Illustrating deep anger over the issue in the United States, Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California said he was "particularly disgusted by the blind intransigence and utter ingratitude" of France, Germany and Belgium.

"The failure of these three states to honor their commitments is beneath contempt," he said in remarks prepared for a hearing by the House International Relations Committee, in Washington.

Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress may consider reducing financial support for NATO.

The division in the alliance underscores U.S. difficulties in rallying support in the U.N. Security Council for military action against Iraq. France and Germany, joined by Russia and China, are seeking to prevent war by granting more time for more U.N. inspections.


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