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NATO Foreign Ministers Meet to Heal Wounds

The meeting of the foreign ministers of the 19 NATO members in Madrid this week is all about putting differences aside and looking towards the future.

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NATO foreign ministers will start looking for a successor to Secretary-General Robertson in Madrid.

NATO foreign ministers will convene in Madrid on Tuesday and Wednesday for their traditional early year meeting. At the top of the long agenda is an assessment of the progress NATO has made since deciding at the Prague summit in December 2002 to transform itself from a cold war military alliance to a modern, flexible union focused on combating terrorism and ensuring security. The main question facing the 19 ministers is what tasks the alliance accepts in the future.

On Monday, the member states agreed to provide Poland with behind-the-scenes logistical and organizational support in securing southern Iraq after the United States had asked its new comrade in arms to help safeguard the country. It will be the farthest-flung mission in the transatlantic alliance's 54-year history.

Putting aside differences

But observers say NATO's role in Iraq is unlikely to play a large role in the meeting, despite the fact that the United States is pushing for the alliance to take on more responsibilities in the Persian Gulf. NATO foreign ministers, they say, are anxious to avoid the discussion for the moment, preferring instead to forget the conflict that divided NATO into hawks, driven by the U.S. and Britain, and doves, led by Germany and France.

The alliance's military capabilities will be at the forefront of discussion, in particular the creation of the NATO Response Force, which was agreed to in Prague. NATO's top soldier, U.S. General James Jones, said recently that the rapid reaction combat force could be ready for deployment with 5,000-6,000 troops before the end of the year.

The alliance's commitment to assume the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is also on the agenda. In August NATO will be taking over the reins from Germany and the Netherlands as part of the U.N. peacekeeping operation to ensure the security of Kabul and the surrounding area. The NATO operations will be carried out on the basis of the U.N. mandate and under the U.N. flag.

The headhunting begins

Though not on the agenda, discussion on finding a successor to replace departing Secretary-General Lord George Robertson are expected. The Scotsman has already announced plans to resign in December, after four years as NATO's head. The names of Former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, Norwegian Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold and her Italian colleague Antonio Martino, as well as Portuguese EU Commissioner Antonio Vitorino have all been thrown out as possibilities for the post.

In general, expectations aren't high for the gathering, instead the alliance will most likely use the opportunity to heal wounds. "Nothing big will come out of this meeting," a NATO official told Reuters news agency in Madrid. "This meeting is all about our recovery."

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