Sat, Jul 03, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Despite steps forward, NATO members still divided over Iraq

AFP , Istanbul

NATO this week trumpeted its recovery from the worst crisis in its 55-year history over Iraq, but resurgent discord -- notably between the US and France -- did not augur well for a restored sense of harmony.

A lack of clarity over what was agreed on both Iraq and Afghanistan also dampened any sense of accord at the two-day summit in Istanbul, a venue chosen to symbolize the bridging of different cultures and views.

"This is a pivotal moment in international history ... In Istanbul, allies have demonstrated once again their common will to act together to defend our shared security and our common values," said NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

That sort of mood-music oratory resonated repeatedly around the fortress-like conference center overlooking the Bosphorus where the group held its biennial summit.

Indeed, two key accords were celebrated. The alliance, holding its first gathering since its April expansion into ex-Soviet territory, notably agreed to train Iraqi troops.

Its leaders also hammered out a deal to send more NATO peacekeepers to Afghanistan to protect planned September elections, the first since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban.

But signs that not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet were clear even before the summit started Monday, when the world, and evidently Jacques Chirac, awoke to the news that Iraq was getting its limited sovereignty back two days early.

As US President George W. Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair shared a conspiratorial smile at the deal, the caught-short French president expressed his pique by declaring initially that he simply "took note" of the handover.

A short time later Chirac, who spearheaded the opposition to last year's US-led Iraq war, welcomed the departure of the US Coalition from Baghdad with a barb.

"I do not think that it is NATO's role to intervene in Iraq," he said, repeating his opposition to NATO troops inside Iraq rather than outside -- a point on which he was backed by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

On Tuesday hopes of NATO speaking with a single voice were higher when Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed its vow to bolster its International Security Assistance Force before September elections.

The accord did appear to mark a breakthrough for the alliance, which has struggled for months to drum up the resources needed to take over some duties from the US-led anti-Taliban operations in the war-scarred country.

But even as the NATO leaders prepared to leave, it emerged that wrangling was not entirely resolved over exactly where the troops and equipment will come from.

Again France led countries opposed to the use of a newly-created rapid reaction force, arguing that the alliance's more traditional arm-twisting method of finding troops was good enough.

Diplomats conceded that the dispute was causing headaches, but insisted that it could be resolved, possibly by using Italian troops.

"I think we can get the forces another way if we have to," said one envoy, who asked not to be identified.

But perhaps the summit's biggest spat was over something not even up for debate by NATO: a comment by Bush backing summit host Turkey's bid to join the European Union -- a prospect eyed with some scepticism in Paris.

"Not only did he go too far, he ventured into territory which is not his concern," Chirac said. "It would be like me telling the United States how to run its affairs with Mexico."

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