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NATO: Defense Ministers Focusing On Support For Iraq, Afghanistan --> NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (file photo) The rift between the United States and key European allies over the invasion of Iraq has kept NATO, as an alliance, from deploying combat troops to Iraq for security operations. Last June, NATO officials did agree on a mission to train 1,000 Iraqi security forces annually. But so far, the alliance has not formed enough staff for training to begin. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says there is a newfound harmony within the alliance on Iraq -- and Washington is urging its NATO allies to speed up the Iraqi training mission. This issue was one of the priorities at an informal gathering of NATO defense ministers in the French resort of Nice today. The talks also have been focusing on the political future of Afghanistan.

10 February 2005 -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been encouraging NATO defense ministers gathered in Nice to move more quickly on their plan to train Iraqi security forces.

"When you are engaged, as we are in Iraq -- and we feel a great sense of urgency to have the Iraqi forces trained and equipped and increasingly capable of assuming responsibility for the security responsibilities of their country -- obviously, you always want things to go faster," Rumsfeld said.

NATO has so far sent to Iraq about 80 military officers out of the 300 expected to train Iraqi troops. Ultimately, those Iraqi troops are to provide security for their country so that U.S., British, and other foreign troops can be withdrawn.

The Iraqi interim government says it hopes foreign troops will start to leave Iraq by the end of this year. Success on that timetable is closely tied to the NATO training mission. Most analysts think it will be at least four or five years before the security situation has improved enough for most of the 170,000 foreign troops in Iraq to be withdrawn.

As an informal meeting, the gathering in Nice is not concluding any formal structural decisions. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer noted yesterday that any formal political decisions by the alliance would be taken at a summit of NATO heads of state and government on 22 February in Brussels. But de Hoop Scheffer says he hopes troop commitments or financial support for the Iraq training mission will be made before then.

"My goal is that as soon as possible, but of course at the latest on the 22nd of February, all 26 NATO allies will be contributing to the training mission," de Hoop Scheffer said. "And you know, that is either training inside Iraq, or outside Iraq, or through financing under a NATO umbrella."

Some NATO members -- among them Spain, Greece, Belgium, and Luxembourg -- said before the Nice gathering that they will not participate in the NATO training mission. But officials from those countries also said they will not veto the plans.

France also said previously that it was unwilling to join any NATO mission to train Iraqi military personnel -- either inside or outside of Iraq. But the host of the Nice gathering, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, said at the start of the two-day meeting that Paris is willing to train police officers in Qatar on a bilateral basis. Officials in Paris say the Iraqi interim government has thus far not responded to their offer.

Speaking in Brussels after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with other NATO foreign ministers yesterday, NATO's secretary-general said the "big priority" for the alliance is the political future of Afghanistan.

"NATO is expanding its mission, ISAF, to the west of the country and then to the south," he said. "And defense ministers will discuss this subject in Nice, as well. But what we also need is a long-term political vision for Afghanistan beyond the upcoming [parliamentary] elections in the spring in Afghanistan, which, as you know, NATO will support -- like we supported the [Afghan] presidential elections (in October of 2004)."

De Hoop Scheffer also said the series of high-level trans-Atlantic consultations taking place in Nice and Brussels this month need to forge what he called a common "vision" on how to help Afghan President Hamid Karzai tackle the many problems he is facing. Those issues include the need to disarm Afghanistan's factional militias around the country, as well as combating the production and smuggling of illegal drugs.

(Compiled from wire service reports.)