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NATO allies skirt France to approve military defense of Turkey

BRUSSELS—A month-long impasse that had divided NATO allies over potential war in Iraq ended late Sunday when Germany and Belgium agreed to begin planning for the defense of Turkey should it come under attack.

NATO officials avoided having to obtain the agreement of France, the third and most obstinate hold-out, when they debated the matter in the alliance's Defense Planning Committee, in which France has not participated since 1966.

In a soul-searching test of the alliance's solidarity, the three European countries had been arguing that any preparations committed NATO to a "logic of war," which signaled the inevitability of military conflict.

Their reluctance to begin planning—even after Turkey invoked Article IV, which compels the alliance to protect a member that feels threatened—had prompted severe criticism from most of the other 16 members, and caused what its U.S. ambassador called a "crisis of credibility." Allies argued that the delay sent a message of weakness to Saddam Hussein.

Ambassadors from 18 NATO counties met five times Sunday before reaching agreement. A NATO diplomat said it was Belgium that held out longest, arguing that language had to be added to the official documents that made clear that NATO would only be involved 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 NATO diplomat said that alliance officials made the decision 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 had passed, the diplomat said, Germany's opposition ended.

Under the compromise, NATO will begin preparing to send AWAC surveillance planes, Patriot missiles and chemical and biological weapons detection teams to Turkey. Another vote is required before equipment can begin moving.

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 IV for the first time in NATO's 53-year history, but negotiations went nowhere, with Paris, Berlin and Brussels blocking any attempts at compromise.

On Thursday, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made it clear that no deal would come until U.N. weapons inspectors made their Friday report in New York. With members of the U.N. Security Council overwhelmingly supportive of more inspections and imminent war seemingly less likely, there was no longer such a pressing need for France, Germany and Belgium to stall the move toward military action in NATO, diplomats said.

The impasse would not have left Turkey unprotected. The U.S. has promised to provide any equipment it needed. The Netherlands had agreed to ship it Patriot missiles. Even Germany, while blocking the action in NATO, was readying to assist its ally.


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