- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

BRUSSELS — NATO’s 19 member nations yesterday agreed unanimously to start planning to help Poland lead a multinational peacekeeping force in Iraq, a move that begins to heal the alliance’s deep divisions over the war.

Although the plans involve only modest technical assistance, the step also marks the possibility of a wider role for NATO in postwar Iraq.

“This is a big step forward by the NATO alliance,” said Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. “Today’s decision puts us squarely in the mix in Iraq.”

The apparent ease with which allies reached the deal is in stark contrast with the acrimonious dispute before the war, when France, Germany and Belgium for weeks held up sending defensive units to Turkey to emphasize their opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, France and Germany have sought to repair ties with the United States. Mr. Burns said the speedy consensus on Poland’s request indicated that the alliance had put the Iraq dispute behind it.

“I think NATO has overcome that crisis,” he told reporters.

French diplomats said Paris had no objection to authorizing the assistance for Poland, which is expected to assemble at least 7,000 peacekeepers in a force believed to deploy next month to work between a U.S.-run northern zone and the British-controlled south.

The assistance is expected to involve intelligence sharing, communications and logistics, and headquarters setup but no direct NATO involvement on the ground.

“We are not talking about a NATO presence in Iraq; we are talking purely and simply about NATO help to Poland,” said George Robertson, the alliance’s secretary general.

Poland is expected to provide 2,200 troops to lead the force in Iraq. Bulgaria will contribute 450 soldiers, but it was not clear which other countries would join.

Polish officials estimate that the mission will cost $90 million a year, of which Poland is ready to pay a third. Warsaw would like the United States to pay the rest — covering costs for such things as the troops’ transport to Iraq, their barracks and some of their equipment, such as Humvees. Washington has not committed to the financing.

Nations considering joining the mission will meet in Warsaw today and tomorrow.

U.S. officials see NATO’s involvement in Iraq, although limited, as well as a recent decision to take on peacekeeping in Afghanistan, as signs that the alliance is making good on pledges to reinvent itself post-Cold War to face global challenges.

“There is no question that NATO is out on the frontier in the war on terrorism,” Mr. Burns said.

Diplomats at NATO headquarters said they would continue discussions on the alliance taking on a more central role in longer-term peacekeeping efforts in Iraq perhaps as early as the end of the year.

That could follow the model in Afghanistan, where the alliance first provided backup to the German-Dutch peacekeeping force in the capital, Kabul, before agreeing to take command of the mission.

Starting in August, the Afghan operation will mark NATO’s first mission outside its traditional Euro-Atlantic theater.

The Iraq mission is a test for Poland, which joined NATO in 1999 and which has struggled to modernize and restructure its military along Western lines since the collapse of communism 10 year earlier.


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