- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, Feb. 16 (UPI) — NATO ambassadors are meeting in Brussels Sunday, optimistic that a monthlong deadlock over how to protect Turkey in the event of a war with Iraq can be broken.

A compromise proposal tabled by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt late Saturday, with the apparent backing of Germany, appeared to support the deployment of surveillance planes and surface-to-air missiles to Turkey on condition they are used for purely defensive purposes.

The two countries, along with France, had previously blocked U.S. plans to protect the alliance's only predominantly Muslim state, fearing the move would sanction the use of force against Baghdad and undermine the work of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq.

The stand-off between the United States and what Defense Secretary Donald S. Rumsfeld described as "old Europe" has prompted a bitter Transatlantic war of words, with many politicians and papers decrying French, German and Belgian "cowardice" in the face of the alleged threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In a hastily arranged news conference late Saturday, after a day of colossal anti-war demonstrations across Europe, Verhofstadt said he was prepared to waive his country's veto to military planning.

But the Belgian premier said the alliance must "make it explicitly clear that (aid for Turkey) does not imply participation of NATO in a military operation against Iraq."

Following Verhofstadt's surprise announcement, a meeting of NATO's defense planning committee, which unites all the alliance's 19 members except France, - was called for Sunday.

If a deal is struck at this meeting, NATO officials say the chances of alliance ambassadors reaching an agreement would be boosted, putting an end to one of the most divisive and damaging week's in the bloc's 54-year old history.

"The mood is very much one of wanting to wrap this up," one official told United Press International.

However, Belgian Budget Minister Johan Van de Lanotte dampened hopes of a breakthrough Sunday, telling a Flemish television channel: "The first reaction we are getting from the United States is that they are not so happy with our initiative."

If no accord is reached Sunday, discussions are likely to continue on the sidelines of a European Union emergency summit in Brussels Monday.

EU leaders aim to thrash out a common position on how to disarm Saddam, a subject that has split the 15-member bloc down the middle in recent weeks. They will also be briefed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the progress made by weapons inspectors.

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