BRUSSELS, Belgium -- An agreement to end NATO's biggest rift since the Cold War -- a stalemate over a U.S. plan for preparations in case of war in Iraq -- was reached after the alliance pulled an end-run around France.
For a month, France, Germany and Belgium blocked a U.S. proposal to begin planning to help defend Turkey from possible retaliatory attacks by Saddam Hussein in the event of another war in the Gulf. They argued such a move was premature and would undermine U.N. efforts to avoid war.
On Sunday, the 19-member alliance turned to its Defense Planning Committee, which Paris withdrew from in 1966, to negotiate an end to the NATO deadlock. Paris participates only in political consultations.
The committee was used before the 1991 war against Iraq to approve aid for Turkey. But NATO has sought to limit its use since the end of the Cold War in a spirit of rapprochement with Paris.
"Alliance solidarity has prevailed," NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said in announcing the agreement late Sunday. "We have been able collectively to overcome the impasse."
With France sidelined, Germany dropped its objections and Belgium followed hours later.
"We would have preferred to have a decision ... with all 19 members present," Robertson said. "France believed that these measures were not yet opportune. But I hope that people will not in any way get a signal that it implies any less commitment" to Turkey's defense.
'Big step forward'
The United States called the decision a "very big step forward" for the alliance -- even without France.
"We have a clear NATO decision to plan for the support for Turkey," U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns said. "And within several days, we have a clear commitment by all 18 allies that we will deploy AWACS and Patriot systems to Turkey."
The actual deployment is subject to another NATO decision.
"We felt this was the best way to make this very difficult decision," Burns said. "And that decision has been vindicated."
At the last minute Sunday, Belgium insisted on linking any eventual NATO deployment to developments at the U.N. Security Council.
Robertson, in announcing the agreement, said, "This is not a step toward going to war. We have stated the obvious, that is we support the United Nations process, that these decisions are purely for the defense of Turkey."
But the final statement underlined that while NATO supports U.N. efforts to find a peaceful solution, NATO decisions were not dependent on the United Nations or any other organization.
"There's no linkage," Burns said.
The three holdouts issued a joint statement stressing their determination to honor their obligations to NATO, but also their desire to disarm Iraq without force.
They insisted that not all alternatives to force had been "fully exploited."
Turkey, the only NATO ally bordering Iraq, feels especially vulnerable since it is considering allowing tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to use Turkish facilities for a possible Iraq war.
The United States and its allies say denying support for Turkey's defense erodes the alliance's credibility and sends the wrong signal to Saddam.
Some of the measures can be done bilaterally -- Germany has already agreed to send Patriot missiles to Turkey via the Netherlands -- but those missiles need to be linked to NATO radar networks to be effective.
Countries such as Germany also have promised AWACS crews, but the planes themselves are NATO assets.
The monthlong dispute drove a deep wedge into the 53-year-old alliance.
It also exacerbated tensions within Europe ahead of Monday's emergency summit of 15 European Union leaders, who are trying to reconcile their own widely differing policies on Iraq.
Britain, Spain, Denmark and Italy have broadly backed President Bush, while France and Germany have tried to slow what they see as his headlong rush to war.