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NATO agrees to shield Turkey

A deadlock linked to plans for a war against Iraq ends when the allies turn to a panel to which France does not belong.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2003

BRUSSELS -- 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 Persian Gulf region. 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, from which Paris withdrew 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.

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.

Under the compromise, NATO will begin preparing to send AWACS surveillance planes, Patriot missiles and chemical and biological weapons detection teams to Turkey.

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.

The United States is hoping to use bases in Turkey, the only NATO country to border Iraq, to open a "northern front" in a campaign to oust Hussein. The Turkish Parliament was scheduled to decide Tuesday on the U.S. request, but the foreign minister, Yasar Yakis, said Sunday in Ankara that a decision could be delayed.

The announcement came after the foreign minister returned from Washington, where he was unable to negotiate an aid package for Ankara against likely economic disruptions should there be war.

Ambassadors from 18 NATO countries met five times Sunday before reaching agreement. Belgium held out longest, arguing that language had to be added to the official documents that made clear that NATO would be involved only in defensive actions, and tying NATO's engagement to approval by the U.N. Security Council of military action.

Belgium, whose government faces national elections in May, finally backed off that position as midnight approached.

The final statement made no firm commitment. "We continue to support efforts in the United Nations to find a peaceful solution to the crisis," the NATO statement said.

Knight Ridder Newspapers, quoting an unnamed NATO diplomat, reported that alliance officials decided this weekend to shift the debate from the North Atlantic Council, where France has a vote, to the Defense Planning Committee because Germany and France had agreed that they would not budge from their position until after Friday's presentation by weapons inspectors at the United Nations.

Once that deadline passed, the diplomat said, Germany's opposition ended.

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 are not dependent on the United Nations or any other organization.

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 war against Iraq.

The United States and its allies say denying support for Turkey's defense erodes the alliance's credibility and sends the wrong signal to Hussein.

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 and was threatening to undercut NATO's credibility as a mutual defense organization. Some U.S. administration officials and lawmakers had bluntly warned that the alliance risked becoming irrelevant if it failed to act on Turkey's request for help.

The dispute also exacerbated tensions ahead of today's emergency summit of 15 European Union leaders, who are trying to reconcile their widely differing policies on Iraq.

There was little sign that the breakthrough at NATO would avert a confrontation at the summit called to find a common position on Iraq and end the deep division in the bloc.

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.

The alliance made no decision to reinforce protection of U.S. bases in Europe or to replace U.S. peacekeepers in Europe with European counterparts so American military personnel can be reassignment to Iraq -- two elements that were part of the original U.S. proposal.

The crisis boiled over Feb. 10 when the three countries officially blocked preparations for Turkey's defense. Later that day, Turkey invoked Article 4 for the first time in NATO's 53-year history, but negotiations went nowhere, with Paris, Berlin and Brussels blocking any attempts at compromise.

-- Information from the Associated Press, Knight Ridder Newspapers and Washington Post was used in this report.

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