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NATO meets amid Iraq rift; Rumsfeld says allies won't delay U.S.

BERLIN—After an extraordinary NATO session where France, Germany and Belgium rejected Turkey's plea for help to prepare for a possible war in Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pledged that the European allies' tactic would not delay any military action.

Turkey called Monday's meeting of the 19 allies, invoking the NATO treaty's Article 4 to call for security consultations for the first time in NATO's 53-year history. Turkey claimed its security was threatened by the trio's three-week opposition to begin planning to supply it with AWAC surveillance planes, Patriot missiles and chemical and biological weapons detectors.

The alliance faces "a crisis of credibility," said U.S. Ambassador to NATO R. Nicholas Burns. NATO Secretary General George Robertson acknowledged "a very heated argument" within the alliance, but expressed optimism for an agreement. Another meeting is scheduled for Tuesday morning.

The dispute was the latest clash with European allies over U.S. Iraq policy, although it seemed unlikely by itself to seriously wound NATO or slow U.S. war preparations.

In Washington, Rumsfeld said that NATO countries would individually boost the defense of Turkey, the only alliance member to border Iraq, should the trio continue to hold out.

President Bush said he was "disappointed" by the decision not to aid Turkey. "I don't understand that decision. It affects the alliance in a negative way. Hopefully, they'll reconsider."

France, Germany and Belgium contend that bolstering Turkish defenses is tantamount to acknowledging the inevitability of military action against Iraq before diplomatic initiatives have been exhausted. Officials from the three countries have said they support Turkey, but they don't want to be pressured into helping it prematurely.

In a separate action, the three countries took a united stand for more and tougher weapons inspections in Paris Monday when French President Jacques Chirac read a joint declaration stating that war is the last option for neutralizing Iraq's weaponry. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was making a state visit, called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. "We are against the war," he said. "At the moment, that's the view I have."

Putin said he believes inspectors are making progress with Iraq. "Iraq is offering more information and shown a greater wish and willingness to cooperate," he said. Putin said Russia would contribute "equipment and aviation" to any efforts to heighten inspections.

President Bush, visiting Nashville, Tenn., expanded his indictment against the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who he said was preparing for a possible U.S.-led war by positioning troops in civilian areas.

"Saddam Hussein regards the Iraqi people as human shields, entirely expendable, when their suffering serves his purposes. America views the Iraqi people as human beings who have suffered long enough under this tyrant," Bush said at a convention of religious broadcasters in Nashville.

Pointing to a post-Saddam Iraq, Bush said "the United States is committed to helping them build a better future. If conflict occurs, we will bring Iraq food and medicine and supplies, and most importantly, freedom."

Also Monday, Iraq's United Nations envoy told international weapons inspectors that his country was dropping its opposition to U-2 surveillance flights over Iraq aimed at helping the inspections.

Bush dismissed the move as an empty gesture. "The reason why we even need to fly U-2 flights is because they're not disarming," he said. "This is a man who is trying to stall for time. He's trying to play a diplomatic game."

Confusion about the terms of the Iraqi offer arose hours later, however, when Iraqi television quoted Saddam as saying that U.S. and British warplanes patrolling Iraq's northern and southern "no-fly zones" must not attack Iraqi air defenses during U-2 flights.

In the NATO crisis, France and Belgium officially notified the alliance Monday morning that they would oppose the decision to begin planning for Turkey's defense. Germany issued a letter backing the other two, but not officially blocking the plans, which the United States proposed three weeks ago.

NATO members met for two hours in the afternoon, briefed by the chairman of NATO's military committee, on the seriousness of the threat to Turkey. One NATO diplomat said France took the lead in opposing planning.

U.S. officials spent the weekend pressuring the European opponents at a Munich security conference and in media interviews. In reply, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie criticized the United States of using NATO to advance its own agenda. "To be an ally means to consult, to find consensus; it is not saying my idea is necessarily the right one and all those who don't agree should be pushed aside or excluded," she said in Munich.

NATO expert Christopher Coker, a professor at the London School of Economics, said the rift could in the future undermine the integrity of Article 4. In spirit, said Coker, the language calls on all NATO members to come to the defense of another NATO member "but with the assumption (that member) was illegally attacked."

If Turkey allows itself to be used as a staging nation for forces attacking Iraq, and is then attacked itself, he wondered, is NATO required to then come to Turkey's defense? In that case, he said, "Turkey has to some extent invited attack."

Meanwhile, Greece, which holds the presidency of the European Union, called an emergency meeting for Monday of all EU heads of state, who will come together in Brussels on Iraq.

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(Vrazo reported from London. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Diego Ibarguen contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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