Brussels, 2 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A senior NATO official, who asked to remain anonymous, yesterday told reporters in Brussels that the coming weeks will be crucial in determining the alliance's role in Iraq.
"September will be a month in which this alliance pays a lot of attention to what it can do to support a new Iraq," the official said.
A "training implementation mission" is currently in Baghdad to assess the country's needs.
The mission was sent in response to a request made to NATO earlier in the summer by Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for help in training and equipping the country's security forces.
The NATO official said about a dozen of the current "training implementation mission" members have returned from Baghdad and have begun drawing up their recommendations. Another 40-45 officers remain in Baghdad.
The official said the mission has established what he described as "good working relations" with the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries, and with the U.S.-led coalition forces.
He said the mission has already begun limited training work, instructing some Iraqi staff. NATO officers also help coordinate the provision of equipment to Iraqi security forces -- another key Iraqi request.
A NATO source told RFE/RL that a final decision on the shape and extent of the training mission is likely to follow the guidelines of a tacit compromise reached in August.
Under the compromise, France and Germany would only conduct training outside Iraq's borders. Germany, among others, is already training Iraqi officers in its own domestic facilities. Other allies are free to undertake training work inside Iraq.
The number of NATO instructors in Iraq is likely to be one issue of further contention. The official indicated the United States could be asking for hundreds of NATO personnel.
A key dispute remains over whether the mission's chain of command will include elements of the current U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
In past debates, France -- backed by Germany and Belgium -- had rejected the U.S. request to make the mission at least partly answerable to the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq.
The final decision will be political, resting with NATO governments.
The NATO source speaking to RFE/RL said the United States argues that the coalition is needed to provide security for instructors. The number of troops needed for protection would surpass the number of instructors. This means it would be far simpler and cheaper to use locally available U.S. and coalition assets.
Although the NATO mission would remain under overall alliance command, security-related matters would need to be handled by the coalition command.
The source said France has been the most vocal among the critics of this proposal, saying this would make the NATO mission effectively a part of the U.S.-led coalition and "legitimize" the U.S. presence in Iraq.
NATO officials say the alliance's highest decision-making body -- the North Atlantic Council, comprising all 26 NATO ambassadors -- will in the coming days study two reports on the question of Iraq training. One will be the product of the current "implementation" mission; the other will be drawn up by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
The final decision, however, will be political -- resting with NATO governments.