- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BRUSSELS (AP) - A Dane who infuriated Muslims by speaking out in favor of freedom of speech during an uproar over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and who sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan is emerging as the frontrunner to be NATO’s next secretary-general.

Europeans and Americans are forging a broad consensus over tapping Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is likely to be named at NATO’s upcoming summit in April, according to two NATO officials who spoke on condition anonymity because negotiations are ongoing.

One obstacle to his candidacy: Opposition by Turkey, a key strategic player in the alliance and its only predominantly Muslim member.

Turkey on Tuesday said Fogh Rasmussen was “unacceptable” because of his statements during the 2006 cartoon crisis, in which Muslims around the world staged violent protests. The Turks also fear Fogh Rasmussen supports Kurdish separatists and wants to keep Turkey out of the EU.

“It is unacceptable that NATO be headed by an individual who has in the past rudely disrespected our values and religious beliefs,” said Suat Kiniklioglu, the top foreign policy official in Turkey’s ruling party.

Turkey wields veto power like all other NATO members; but the two NATO officials said expectations were high that Turkey would eventually go along with the majority view.

Fogh Rasmussen’s closest rival is believed to be Canadian Defense Minister Peter Mackay, but he said on Sunday that he is more interested in keeping his current job. Other candidates include Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and his Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Stoere.

If Fogh Rasmussen prevails, it would be the first time a sitting prime minister has been chosen as secretary-general. He would likely raise the profile of the organization at a time when it faces the most critical military mission in its history in Afghanistan.

Denmark is one of the few European countries whose soldiers in the 62,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan fight in the most dangerous, southern part of the country alongside American units.

Fogh Rasmussen, a staunch Atlanticist, was also a strong backer of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and deployed troops there.

He speaks French fluently, a key condition in the bilingual organization. French will gain even broader use after Paris rejoins the military structure following a 40-year hiatus.

NATO’s chief executive runs the day-to-day business of the alliance and plays an important role in chairing key meetings and summits and setting alliance policy. His main task is to forge consensus on key security challenges, so that member nations can take unanimous decisions as is required by the NATO charter.

Traditionally, the post of secretary-general has gone to a European, while the alliance’s military commander has always been an American general.

The new secretary-general is expected to be named at NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg, France on April 3-4. But some officials say that if there is no agreement, the choice may be put off until Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s term runs out in July.

Trans-Atlantic cooperation in the war in Afghanistan is expected to dominate talks at the NATO summit, with the Obama administration seeking agreement on a new, comprehensive strategy to deal with the deteriorating situation there.

Fogh Rasmussen was prime minister in 2006 when Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad sparked furious protests across the Muslim world, thrusting the small Scandinavian country into the middle of an international crisis.

Although he received mixed reviews for his handling of the uproar, the center-right leader has gained a reputation both at home and abroad as a deft negotiator in other matters.

In Denmark, he has led a minority government since 2001 with the backing of the nationalist Danish People’s Party, whose leaders are known for anti-Muslim outbursts. He has secured their support with stricter immigration rules _ without offering them any Cabinet posts.

Internationally, Fogh Rasmussen has helped raise Denmark’s profile with a strong commitment to EU cooperation and trans-Atlantic ties. He was lauded as a creative consensus builder during his term as EU president in 2002, when he led arduous negotiations that sealed the entry of 10 mostly eastern European countries into the EU.

De Hoop Scheffer took office in 2004. The former Dutch foreign minister is set to step down after a tumultuous five-year term that saw the alliance confronted with the war in Afghanistan and divisions over relations with a resurgent Russia.


Jan M. Olsen reported from Copenhagen. Associated Press correspondent Susan Fraser in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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