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Possible War in Iraq Uncovers Deepening Divide Within NATO

By Ken Fireman
NEWSDAY -- washington

The trans-Atlantic rift that erupted over Turkey’s request for NATO assistance in case of war in Iraq mirrors much deeper fissures that threaten the continued relevance -- and perhaps the whole future -- of the 53-year-old alliance.

On one level, the dispute reflects widespread public apprehension in Europe about the Bush administration’s determination to wage war over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This is especially strong among citizens in France and Germany, the NATO members who, along with Belgium, vetoed the Turkish request, but pollsters have found it prevalent throughout Europe.

On another level, however, the rift over Turkish aid exposes fault lines among European governments, if not its citizens, over Iraq. As U.S. officials cheerfully note, eight European governments signed a statement last week rejecting the French-German view and endorsing Washington’s position; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asserted Monday it is the governments that cast the veto that are isolated within NATO, not Washington.

On an operational level, Rumsfeld argued that the veto would have no impact. He said the Turkish request would be met “through a different mechanism of NATO,” or entirely outside it if necessary, and that the dispute would not delay a U.S. assault on Iraq should President Bush order one.

But Bush acknowledged broader consequences, saying, “It affects the alliance in a negative way when you’re not able to make a statement of mutual defense.”

Indeed, the diplomatic ripples may be hard to contain. Most immediately, it indicates that France and Germany are hardening rather than easing in their opposition to a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a military strike against Iraq. In fact, French President Jacques Chirac and another opponent of military action, Russian President Vladimir Putin, jointly reiterated Monday that Iraq should be disarmed through peaceful means.

More broadly, the inability of NATO to reach consensus on the most pressing international problem of the moment is certain to revive questions about its relevance a dozen years after the demise of the superpower it was created to oppose the Soviet Union.