The U.S. asked NATO to play a greater role in Iraq at a foreign ministers' meeting on Thursday. The summit has been clouded by a deepening row over EU ambitions to develop independent military capabilities.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged NATO to consider playing a bigger role in Iraq.
NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday were debating a wider role for the security alliance in postwar Iraq following a request by Washington, the first clear sign of help since the beginning of the U.S.-led war against Iraq.
"... The United States welcomes a greater NATO role in Iraq’s stabilization," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a prepared text. "We urge the alliance to examine how it might do more to support peace and stability in Iraq, which every leader has acknowledged is critical to all of us," the text read.
The U.S. call for more military help from NATO in Iraq has been backed by outgoing NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. "The alliance must continue to help NATO countries who take on leadership roles in Iraq, and prepare itself to take on new roles and missions where necessary," Robertson said at the start of the meeting.
NATO role in Iraq still open
Washington’s request follows recent proposals by Spain, Poland and Italy for NATO to assume a more direct role in Iraq in 2004 and possibly even take over the multinational peacekeeping division currently led by Poland, just as it did recently in Afghanistan.
NATO is currently involved in providing logistical help to the Polish-led peacekeeping contingent in south-central Iraq. A total of 18 current and future members of NATO have also individually sent troops to Iraq.
"We should keep in mind the fact that most of the NATO member states are present in Iraq," Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewic told reporters at the alliance’s headquarters on Thursday. "We believe that it would be wise if NATO engages itself, involves itself, deeper in the future."
But Washington’s request for further NATO involvement in Iraq, in the face of mounting U.S. casualties and costs, is unlikely to be endorsed by all of the alliance’s members. In particular, France and Germany, staunch opponents of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, are expected to reiterate demands for a stronger U.N. role in overseeing peacekeeping operations before they authorize greater NATO participation.
EU military ambitions still a sore point
Thursday’s ministerial meeting also grappled with the ongoing transatlantic row over the European Union’s plans to develop its own defense capabilities, independent of NATO. The proposals, agreed upon in Naples last week by Europe’s Big Three, allow Germany, France and Britain to set up an autonomous military planning unit capable of overseeing military operations.
The EU plans have angered Washington, which believes they could undermine NATO. Six weeks ago the U.S. administration slammed EU military plans, calling them "the most serious threat" to NATO’s future. Since then, the plan has been watered down and criticism has been more muted, with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld preferring to play down the dispute.
However on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State, Powell made it clear Washington was not prepared to back down over the EU project, seen by some as an attempt by Brussels to act as a counterweight to U.S. military power. "The United States cannot accept independent EU structures that duplicate existing NATO capabilities," Powell said.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (left) said he didn’t share Washington’s concerns. "We will need to cooperate on a European level," he said. In a separate interview with the Financial Times, Fischer stressed that a militarily-stronger Europe was good for NATO. "(European military involvement) in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro has shown that an empowered Europe is in the interest of NATO. It will remain the case in the future," he argued.