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Interim Iraqi prime minister asks NATO to play bigger role

WASHINGTON—Iraq's interim prime minister has formally asked NATO to do more to help stabilize his violence-wracked country by training its nascent security forces.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's request comes in advance of the NATO summit Monday and Tuesday in Istanbul, Turkey, and could help President Bush in his efforts to win a greater NATO commitment in Iraq.

The 26-member NATO alliance provides only logistical support to a Polish-commanded multinational division in south-central Iraq. Bush has sought a larger alliance role to help relieve the overstretched U.S. military.

The administration has warned that it's in the world's interest to avoid a civil war that could shatter Iraq along ethnic and religious lines and sow anarchy across the oil-rich Middle East.

NATO members France and Germany, which led international opposition to the 2003 invasion, have rejected calls for NATO to take command of the 160,000-strong U.S.-led multinational force. Their opposition is critical because NATO makes decisions by consensus.

In addition, it's unlikely that other NATO members will contribute many new troops to the multinational force, which will remain in Iraq after the U.S.-led occupation ends June 30. Sixteen of the NATO countries already have soldiers in Iraq.

But French President Jacques Chirac has left open the possibility that his government could agree to NATO training Iraq's new security forces.

James Appathurai, the alliance's chief spokesman, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that Allawi made his request for a NATO training mission on Monday in a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Allawi also asked for other forms of assistance that he didn't specify, said Appathurai.

A NATO official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said the 26 alliance governments have been consulting on Allawi's request, but he didn't know if a decision would be made at the summit in Istanbul.

A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said France was open to considering ways in which NATO might step up its involvement, but remained opposed to a major alliance role, as that would give Iraqis an impression that they were swapping one occupier for another.

Democrats have echoed the administration's call for greater NATO involvement.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts on Wednesday said Bush had failed since before the war to win strong international support for his Iraq policy.

"Now, at next week's NATO summit in Istanbul, we have what may be our last chance to secure that support. It is clearer than ever that additional troops and resources would support our mission in Iraq, relieve the pressure on our troops and improve the interim Iraqi government's opportunity for success."

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who recently returned from a visit to Iraq, said he was worried that the president is abandoning the effort to get NATO more involved.

Bush, he said, should present his NATO counterparts in Istanbul with a specific plan for a larger alliance role, such as helping secure Iraq's borders, bolstering the Polish-led contingent or sending a 4,000-strong brigade to protect U.N. personnel.

He also said he was concerned that the Bush administration is directing U.S. commanders to reduce their operations in a bid to restrict casualties among the 138,000 American troops in the run-up to the November presidential election.

That approach raises the danger of a security vacuum that Iraq's ill-trained and undermanned security forces will be unable to fill, he warned.

"I think it's a political decision and I think it's a mistake," he said.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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