Disagreement overshadowed a NATO Defense ministers meeting in the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk on Friday aimed at discussing launching a training academy for senior Iraqi military officers in Iraq.
The crucial deal on the training mission has the potential of settling almost two years of tension between the United States and some of its European partners over NATO's role in Iraq. The organization had already agreed to launch the training mission back in June.
The major stumbling block had been opposition from Paris, which had previously objected to operations inside Iraq under a NATO flag. Diplomats say France, which refuses to send any forces into Iraq itself, has no problems with the technical aspects of the mission but wants to know what the added value of it would be.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the foreign ministry in Paris was still considering its options. "We in France continue to believe that this training should be done outside Iraq," Alliot-Marie told reporters. "Iraq has to find its own sense of identity and I don't think the addition of more foreigners in uniform will help that." If they were going in, she said the mission should remain "as low-profile as possible."
Under a deal worked out among NATO's 26 member nations, it’s been suggested that the mission would report to the US officer in command of training operations in Iraq. A French diplomat said France wanted more assurances, however, that the officer would be answerable to the alliance. In other words, there are fears that the alliance will end up being subordinate to the US-led coalition. NATO already has some 40 soldiers in Iraq who began training army officers in collaboration with the defense ministry in Baghdad. The issue of the command structure led to a stormy debate in July.
De Hoop Scheffer hopeful of deal
NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer admitted Friday that member states couldn't see eye to eye on the issue. "As it stands now, all 26 allies aren't completely satisfied," De Hoop Scheffer said on the sidelines of the meeting.
At the same time De Hoop Scheffer played down the differences and said he was optimistic that a compromise could be reached soon. He insisted the differences were not "substantial" and included details of the training mission's relationship with the much wider US mission to rebuild a new 260,000-strong Iraqi army, and the question of protection for the alliance instructors.
The North Atlantic Council, NATO's top decision-making body, will meet Monday to re-examine the proposals. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon was of the opinion that an agreement on the Iraq issue was virtually in the bag. And other officials insisted that the Alliance “is nearing agreement”.
Doubts over funding
But French reservations over the question of NATO's allegiance in Iraq isn't the only issue causing argument among NATO's ranks.
Officials say that Belgium balked at agreement because of problems it has with the project’s funding structure. A Belgian foreign ministry spokesman said they wanted to know who’s paying for what. The operation is likely to be paid for from a mix of common NATO funding and national financing.
As plans stand now, around 300 NATO instructors are to be sent to Iraq to set up a training center for Iraqi officers outside Baghdad. Germany, France, Belgium and now also Spain have agreed that they will not send soldiers to Iraq, but rather support the training of Iraqi military and officials outside the country.
Although several of the NATO allies have individually sent troops to join the US-led coalition, objections from France and Germany had previously prevented the alliance taking a collective role in Iraq, apart from offering logistical support to a Polish-led multinational force of 6,000 troops operating in the center of the country. However, France, Germany and the other allies agreed in June at a NATO summit in Istanbul to the creation of an alliance training mission for Iraq.
Driving instructors and vehicle maintenance units
German Defense Minister Peter Struck told reporters Friday that the German army would train Iraqis in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as driving instructors and also teach them how to carry out vehicle maintenance. Germany would also provide the vehicles needed for the purpose. Further training on mine-clearance would likely be carried out in Germany, he said.
Germany had previously limited its training to Iraqi police units. Struck told reporters German officials had drawn up the training plan after talks with Iraqi counterparts in the UAE.
"For Germany, this still means that there will be no single German soldier on the ground in Iraq," Struck stressed.