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Nations ask what, if any, role in Iraq

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 11, 2004.

SEA ISLAND, Ga. -- The G-8 nations' leaders will have barely shaken the sand out of the shoes they wore on the dunes of Sea Island when they'll have to once again take up perhaps the most divisive issue of the summit: their role in Iraq.

At the end of June, when North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders -- including some of the G-8 countries-- meet in Istanbul, Turkey, it's likely the issue of troops in Iraq will once again be on the table.

The troop discussion provided perhaps the sharpest point of disagreement among the G-8 leaders, especially among NATO members.

NATO, which has acted in other conflicts, such as Yugoslavia, currently is fulfilling only a small support role in Iraq, providing logistics and communication assistance to Polish troops there.

Prior to a recently passed U.N. resolution concerning the handover of authority in Iraq, France, Germany, Russia and Canada stressed that they would not get involved in the fighting, with the NATO countries not even sending troops under that banner.

Accordingly, much of the discussion at the summit revolved around what type of support role NATO could provide for the Iraqi military once the United States hands over the keys to the country on June 30.

"I suggested to the leaders of the G-8 that we listen to the needs of the Iraqi leadership," President Bush said during a news conference. "And if they ask for more training, for example, a good organization to provide that training would be NATO. I don't expect more troops from NATO to be offered up. That's an unrealistic expectation."

All the national leaders who addressed the issue stressed that whatever they did, it would be at the request of the new Iraqi government.

It was unclear as the summit ended how willing NATO allies, particularly France, would be to provide officer training or other services.

In discussions Thursday morning, according to a U.S. senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity, French President Jacques Chirac did not offer a "firm red line of no's" regarding NATO involvement.

"We did hear some interest in consultation and possibly finding a suitable role for NATO," the administration official said, such as providing training or support for Iraqi troops.

The French are "cautious about the visible NATO role," the official said, but has established the basis for discussion over the organization's role.

Chirac did say, "I see myself with strong reservations on this initiative," perhaps a subtle change from his more hard-line statements before the U.N. vote that French troops would "never" be sent to Iraq.

During a press conference Thursday, Chirac said he feared NATO involvement could make the situation look too much like a "confrontation between the Christian West and the Muslim East."

"I could not agree to a mission like that for NATO," he said. As to the question of whether there could be a training role for the organization, he said, "I have no specific feeling, no specific opinion. I have no comment to make in that regard."

For his part, British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- whose country, along with Japan and Italy, has troops on the ground in Iraq -- said the divisions between the countries might not be as large as they seem.

"I wouldn't exaggerate the differences," he said. If the issue is whether NATO would support development in Iraq, "I'd be surprised if NATO didn't agree to it."

John Kirton, director of the G-8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, said he would be equally surprised, if for no other reason than the timing.

The NATO meeting will be held June 28-29, the day before the government of Iraq changes hands. By then it should be clear, Kirton said, that the United Nations will not be providing military assistance and somebody will have to fill the gap.

"If you want it to work," he said, "NATO will need to step up."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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