A spat between the United States and France was not enough to stop NATO members eventually agreeing to dispatch "as soon as possible" a small group of officers to Iraq to train the country's military after envoys from the 26 allied nations met for the sixth time in three days on an issue that had rekindled tensions over last year's Iraq war.
The agreement to finally raise the NATO flag in Baghdad, under which fewer than 40 officers will operate in a purely training role, came after the United States, faced with resistance from France, agreed to shelve its demand that the mission come under U.S.-led coalition command.
Washington had been calling for an immediate decision to put NATO's mission under the command of the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq, arguing this was essential to ensure the safety of NATO staff in a dangerous environment. France feared this would be the thin end of the wedge, inserting NATO into the Iraqi battlefield through a back door.
A nucleus of future operations
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called the mission a "nucleus" of future operations at a news conference and admitted that while the agreement was an important political milestone for the alliance, in military terms it represented only a modest contribution to the efforts to stabilize Iraq.
After announcing that the NATO officers would leave for Iraq in early August to help the insurgency-plagued government rebuild its ministry of defense and military headquarters, de Hoop Scheffer declared: "This alliance is united on Iraq."
"It's a distinct NATO mission," he continued but added that the US-led multinational force would give protection and "there should be a relationship between the training mission and multinational force in Iraq."
Deadlocked over details
The idea of NATO training for Iraqi forces was agreed by leaders at a NATO summit in Istanbul in June. But ambassadors had been deadlocked in recent days over details. The wording of the summit accord had been left vague because of French and German resistance to an overt or
collective role for the alliance in Iraq, forcing alliance envoys back around the table to agree on details.
U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns was satisfied that NATO had agreed to have a genuine presence in Iraq and said he expected the training force to grow rapidly into the hundreds within months.
The unification of NATO
"The NATO flag is definitely going to be in Baghdad," he said at a press conference. "Today's decision for us represents the unification of NATO... We've come together in a way that we could not a year-and-a-half ago."
The remaining details of the mission will be thrashed out at the next NATO meeting in September.