- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

MUNICH — Germany’s foreign minister yesterday challenged a U.S. proposal to give the NATO alliance a role in Iraq peacekeeping, raising the prospect of new trans-Atlantic dispute.

With U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld listening, Joschka Fischer’s warning at an annual defense conference recalled some of the sting of their sharp exchange a year ago in the buildup to the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

“The risk of failure and the potentially very serious, possibly fatal consequences for the alliance absolutely must be taken into consideration,” Mr. Fischer said at a gathering of leading security officials and experts from about 50 countries.

Mr. Fischer said such a move poses the danger of overstretching the alliance, still recovering from deep rifts over the war itself. However, he said Germany would not block a mission if there is a general NATO consensus.

Mr. Rumsfeld did not respond directly to Mr. Fischer’s challenge. The United States proposed a NATO role in Iraq in December, and Mr. Rumsfeld on Friday suggested the alliance could take command of zones now run by Poland and Britain.

NATO’s new secretary-general, Jakob Gijsbert (Jaap) de Hoop Scheffer, insisted the alliance should not rule out a role in Iraq.

“If a legitimate Iraqi government asks for our assistance, and if we have the support of the United Nations, NATO should not abdicate from its responsibilities,” he said.

Returning to the scene of a dramatic clash with Mr. Fischer last year, Mr. Rumsfeld earlier yesterday gave a spirited defense of the Iraq war, saying it had made “the world a safer place.” He did not mention the failure to find banned weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Mr. Fischer reasserted that Germans “were not, and are still not, convinced of the validity of the reasons,” using phrasing that angered Mr. Rumsfeld at the conference a year ago.

Though conceding little ground over the necessity for the war, Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Fischer emphasized that both camps now want to look to the future. Mr. Fischer called for Europe and the United States to join together in a broad effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East.

A major push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fight terrorism and promote economic development in the Middle East would help heal the trans-Atlantic rift, Mr. Fischer said.

The Munich conference for 40 years has given top policy-makers and experts an informal forum to discuss and air their differences.

It also has attracted antiwar and anti-NATO protests. A few blocks from the heavily secured hotel, at least 5,000 demonstrators marched through central Munich yesterday, carrying banners reading, “Stop the Warmongers” and “No to global war by NATO countries.”

Police tussled with some of the protesters, arresting four for suspected illegal possession of weapons.

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