Prague, 17 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers today opened a two-day, year-end meeting in Brussels to discuss streamlining the Alliance's command and logistics capabilities. But the talks will probably be dominated by the U.S. and British air strikes against Iraq.
U. S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and his British counterpart, George Robertson, have skipped the gathering, and instead sent their deputies.
NATO Secretary General Javier Solana today issued a statement that charged Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with "responsibility for the grave situation." Solana called on Iraq to "take immediate and concrete steps to comply fully with all its obligations" under United Nations resolutions.
In remarks before the meeting, the German, Portuguese and Spanish defense ministers expressed solidarity with the U.S.-British actions and blamed Saddam for his defiance of the international community. In separate statements, France and Italy said they regretted that the issue had to be dealt with by force. But Belgium said that the use of force had become inevitable
Poland's Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz, who is to attend tomorrow's session alongside 27 other representatives of neutral and Eastern countries, also deplored the fact "that a peaceful solution was not possible." He expressed "full support" for the strikes.
But Russia's Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who was to come to Brussels to attend a meeting of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, today canceled his visit on specific orders from President Boris Yeltsin. Earlier today, Yeltsin was shown on Russian television telling his foreign-affairs advisors that the U. S.-British strikes against Iraq are "simply unacceptable."
Also today, Sergei Prikhodko, a Kremlin foreign-affairs advisor, said that Russia's State Duma would forego for the time being ratification of the START-Two nuclear arms-reduction treaty. Prikhodko said that the decision was made in protest against the air strikes against Iraq. Russia has long opposed any military action against Saddam Hussein, insisting on diplomatic methods of dealing with the Iraqis.
The attacks on Iraq are not directly related to NATO, but the issue is likely to influence discussions of the Alliance's military operations. Among the issues scheduled to be touched on at today's meeting were the situation in Kosovo, where violence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians has risen again in the past few days, and the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.
The ministers were also to take a much-awaited decision on the choice of a commander of the newly created NATO's northern Europe (Afnorth) region. The post will designate the most senior European commander within the Alliance. (The posts of NATO's supreme commander in Europe and the commander of Europe's southern region will continue to be occupied by U.S. officers).
The northern command post was established following last year's decision to merge the existing northwestern and central Europe regions, a part of a reform designed to reduce the number of regional NATO headquarters from 65 to 20. The reform is to be fully implemented within three years.
Britain and Germany have sought the northern command appointment for their nationals. Competition for the job became politicized after the Alliance's chiefs of staff failed at their meeting last month to make a decision. It now appears that, owing to the Iraqi problem, the decision will have to be postponed again.
The ministers were also due to take a close look at the military aspects of preparations by the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for entry into the Alliance. The three countries expect to fulfill all necessary membership requirements by the April NATO summit in Washington, when the Alliance is to celebrate its 50th anniversary.