NATO Wavering on War with Iraq


By Brian Knowlton

International Herald Tribune
January 23, 2003

In a new sign of wavering allied will, NATO postponed a decision Wednesday on a U.S. request for six measures to support a possible war against Iraq.

The move followed what was described as a heated debate, with the United States and Britain on one side, and France, Germany and some other members on the other. "It was a pretty tough discussion," said a diplomat at the Brussels headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Reuters reported. "The arguments were flying."

The 19-nation alliance is expected ultimately to approve the measures, mainly aimed at defending Turkey - which is granting the United States limited basing rights - against a potential Iraqi attack. But the NATO hesitation, in a forum long dominated by the United States and where an almost pro-forma approval might once have been expected, sent a dramatic signal: The debate about war has taken a bad turn for Washington as some of its closest allies have joined in opposition. This in turn increases the likelihood of a narrower U.S. war coalition with no UN backing.

Secretary of State Colin Powell questioned sharply whether French officials - whose rhetoric often exasperates Washington but whose positions frequently end up in alignment with it - were even "serious" about bringing the standoff with Iraq to an end.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin of France said Monday that Paris wanted to give UN arms inspectors more time and saw "no justification today for an intervention" to force Baghdad to destroy its banned weapons.

"What they said is, we should let this process continue," Powell said in an interview released Wednesday. "But it's not clear to me how long they want to continue or whether they are serious about bringing it to a conclusion."

At the NATO meeting, France and Germany were said to have complained that the United States had requested military aid for a possible war with Iraq when many countries were still seeking time for weapons inspections and for a possible diplomatic solution.

The debate came as France, moving closer to the hardening position of Germany, sought to rally broader European support for its position. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder this week expressed Germany's outright opposition to any new Security Council resolution to authorize use of force to make Iraq disarm.

Diplomats in Brussels, who asked not to be named, said that the argument within NATO was not over the principle of helping the United States, which seeks the use of alliance AWACS radar planes and Patriot air-defense batteries to protect Turkey, of NATO ships in the eastern Mediterranean, and of NATO personnel to protect American bases in Europe and possibly the Gulf. The problem, rather, was one of timing. France and Germany said they did not want to appear prematurely to endorse military action. The situation, they added, could change after the UN inspectors deliver a major report Monday to the Security Council.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain is to meet President George W. Bush on Jan. 31 for what some have suggested could be a war council, depending on the outcome of UN debate. Both countries have said no decision has been made on war.

The day after that, Germany assumes the rotating presidency of the Security Council from France. The two said Wednesday they had coordinated their approach, which seeks to give inspectors more time; President Jacques Chirac said in Paris, after meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, that France and Germany believed that only the Security Council should decide on war.

The NATO delay reflects a deepening public divide, and sharpening of tensions, among the alliance nations on Iraq. Washington and London accuse Baghdad of concealing banned programs for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and missiles to deliver them. Britain has strongly backed the Bush administration's tough approach. Spain and Italy have also indicated support.

With time apparently running out, both European and Arab-led diplomatic efforts continued to take shape Wednesday. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany left for Turkey, Egypt and Jordan to discuss ways to achieve a peaceful disarmament of Iraq. Turkey is to host a regional conference Thursday with the same goal.

Saudi Arabia, a traditional U.S. partner in the Gulf, asked for a grace period to permit last-minute Arab peacemaking efforts even if the UN authorizes war. "We do not see any pressing need for military action," said Prince Saud al Faisal, the foreign minister, Reuters reported from Riyadh.

But the United States announced a major new deployment, of an additional 20,000 troops, just two days after a British deployment of 26,000 was announced. Australia, another member of a possible "coalition of the willing," was sending a transport ship and troops. And speculation continued to mount that the extensive U.S.-led forces could act as soon as next month.

A senior Russian military source said Washington and its allies had already decided to launch a mid-February attack with or without a new Security Council resolution, the Interfax news agency said from Moscow. It said the source was in the Russian general staff. It was impossible to determine the reliability of the information.

Russia has called for UN inspectors to be given more time. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Tuesday that "most countries" believed diplomacy still had promise. But Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, said he would tell Russian officials Wednesday in Moscow that diplomatic options were "just about exhausted."

The Security Council in November unanimously approved Resolution 1441 calling for Iraq to disarm or face "serious consequences." Bush said Tuesday that Iraq clearly had not done so.

The chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said Wednesday at the United Nations that nuclear weapons inspectors needed "a few months" more time, and that other inspection teams would need more than that, unless Baghdad - which had provided "prompt access" to nearly all sites - began cooperating even more fully.

The large, U.S.-led military deployment is taking on dimensions, however, that will be difficult to sustain at length - larger, some analysts say, than would be needed simply to back diplomatic pressure on Iraq.

Bush has said that earlier Security Council resolutions give him authority to use these forces if Iraq does not disarm. But he has also said he will make no decision on force before the UN report on Monday.

In Iraq, scores of UN inspectors searched more sites suspected of producing banned arms. Iraq said that its anti-aircraft batteries had shot down an unmanned U.S. surveillance plane Wednesday, its second since last month. But a U.S. military official with the Central Command said that no planes were known to be missing.

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