- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Insider notes from United Press International for Feb. 5 …

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A new favorite has emerged to succeed George Robertson as NATO secretary-general. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi used his meeting with President George Bush at the White House last week to lobby for his own defense minister, Antonio Martino, an economist who has held the job since Berlusconi took office in 2001. Martino certainly looks more credible than the low-key field that has emerged so far, with speculation focusing mainly on two former prime ministers — Antonio Guterres of Portugal and Poul Nyrup Rasmussen of Denmark. Then there's Portuguese EU Commissioner Antonio Vitorino, Norway's Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold and Foreign Minister Jan Petersen. This field will narrow. Once Portugal and Norway get serious, they will start pushing just one candidate. The French are out, since they are not part of NATO's joint military command, the Americans would not be happy with a German these days, and the Brits have just had the job. So Martino looks like the front runner — unless Holland's former premier Wim Kok throws his hat into the ring. There's no hurry. Decisions will not be made until the fall, with a lot of haggling taking place at NATO's June ministerial meeting in Madrid. But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can expect a lot of probing at Munich's Wehrkunde conference this weekend.

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One relatively minor housekeeping decision made at the NATO summit in Prague last November is having intriguing consequences. As part of its attempts to trim staff levels and costs, NATO decided to cut back its sub-commands and regional HQs. There are currently four Joint Sub-Regional Commands in the Mediterranean region, in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and the NATO cost-cutters want to pare these back to one. The Spaniards and Italians are already lobbying hard on their own behalf, but the real concern is for the future of the excellent and hopeful cooperation between Greek and Turkish officers on the ground at their two local headquarters in Izmir, Turkey, and Larissa, Greece. And instead of the Greeks and Turks lobbying against one another, they are campaigning jointly to keep both the Greek and the Turkish headquarters open. They stress that NATO's Balkan peacekeeping operations (and new Bulgarian and Romanian members) justify the Greek headquarters, while Turkey's growing strategic importance for the Middle East means that Izmir should remain open as well.

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The U.S. military has become increasingly frustrated in Pakistan over its inability to pursue al Qaida forces in the turbulent tribal areas to which they fled after evacuating Afghanistan. Now Islamabad is buzzing with claims that the Washington has sought President Pervez Musharraf's "permission" to bomb tribal areas in Waziristan and the Northern Areas, where an estimated 10,000 al Qaida have holed up, enjoying discreet sanctuary from local tribes. Diplomatic sources say the United States has specifically targeted the Mahsoud and Khattak tribes. Not that the Bush administration will receive an automatic green light; the Pakistani military is concerned about Washington's request, as it fears unrest among the 80,000-plus troops from the two tribes. Retired Lt. Gen. Ali Quli Khan Khattak, who was passed over for the army chief's post by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in favor of Musharraf, relayed the concerns of the Khattak and Mahsoud tribes to Gen. Mohammed Aziz, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Khattak's assessment was blunt about the likelihood of revolt should Musharraf accede to the American request.

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In Beirut, gossip center of the Middle East, Arab diplomats have started a new flurry by swapping stories of the "signals" their home capitals have received from Washington, urging them to ensure the speediest possible return of their nationals from the Haj pilgrimage to the Islamic holy shrine of Mecca. The Haj pilgrimage, which is supposed to be undertaken by all good Muslims, is on Feb. 11, and the Americans are said to be demanding that all pilgrims return home in the following four days. Irrespective the implications for war timetables, this could be tricky. With over 1 million pilgrims already in Saudi Arabia for this year's Haj, this could present the airlines with the biggest civilian evacuation in history.

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And so farewell to Robert Hue, leader of the French Communist Party, whose bid to reclaim his seat in the National Assembly has been rejected by the voters. Hue lost his seat in the Val d'Oise in last year's sweeping defeat of the French left by a narrow 244 votes. Disputing the count, Hue appealed all the way to the French Supreme Court to demand a rematch. This time the voters preferred center-right candidate Georges Mothron of the Union for a Popular Movement by 1,000 votes. That still leaves the Communists with 21 seats in the French parliament, and Hue with the consolation of his other elected post, as mayor of the small Paris suburb of Montigny-les-Cormeilles.


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