- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, Feb. 10 (UPI) — NATO was plunged into its deepest crisis for decades Monday after Belgium, France and Germany vetoed a U.S. request to provide military assistance to Turkey in the event of an attack by neighboring Iraq.

Ankara subsequently invoked Article Four of the NATO treaty, which says the alliance will consult "when, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened."

NATO General Secretary Lord Robertson said it was probably the first time in the alliance's 54-year history that the article had been used.

The three European states, which are all staunchly opposed to the military build up in the Gulf, have blocked the U.S. request for three successive weeks, claiming it would undermine efforts to find a peaceful solution to the stand-off between Washington and Baghdad.

In a bid to break the deadlock, Robertson Friday invoked the "silence procedure," which gave the alliance's 19 members 3 days to formally voice their opposition to start contingency planning.

The foreign ministers of Belgium, France and Germany sent a letter of objection to the Alliance's Brussels headquarters just hours before the 6 a.m. EST deadline expired, prompting NATO ambassadors to hold an emergency meeting in Brussels Monday.

Speaking after the conclave, Robertson told reporters: "It is undoubtedly a difficult situation, but the allies have had their differences before and they will undoubtedly have more in the future. What matters is that we arrive at a consensus and I am confident that we will."

Added Robertson: "The question is not if but when to begin planning."

Washington, backed by Ankara and 14 other NATO members, is waiting for the green light to deploy early-warning aircraft, patriot anti-missile defenses and anti-chemical warfare teams to Turkey to protect the alliance's only predominantly Muslim state against possible aggression from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

However, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said the planning pandered to the "logic of war." In an interview with Belgian daily Le Soir Monday, Michel said: "Iraq seems ready to cooperate. Let's not rush things."

The veto comes as a slap in the face for members of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, who used a major defense conference in Munich, Germany, over the weekend to lobby wavering allies to back military preparations.

"We really want the alliance to be with us in the crisis with Iraq, and we think it is a test of the alliance's credibility to meet Turkey's request for its allies' help," said U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicolas Burns.

Speaking on the margins of the same conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the Franco-Belgian veto as "inexcusable."

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