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NATO: Ministers Consider Iraqi Threat, Eastward Expansion

Defense ministers from NATO countries have gathered in Warsaw for their last meeting before the alliance's Prague summit in November. But the proposed eastward expansion of the alliance is only one item on the agenda. The ministers are to be briefed by Pentagon officials on the threat posed by Iraq's alleged programs for weapons of mass destruction. Washington also is expected to propose a new NATO rapid-reaction force that would number up to 20,000 troops.

Prague, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers who have gathered in Warsaw for a two-day meeting that starts today have a busy agenda.

The gathering is the last key meeting of alliance ministers before a further eastward expansion expected at NATO's Prague summit on 21 and 22 November.

But in addition to eastward expansion, the alliance also finds itself at a critical crossroads in the post-Cold War era.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush last week released its first national security strategy paper. The document, in effect, outlines an aggressive new foreign policy aimed at combating the threat of terrorism.

Gone is the Cold War doctrine of containment and deterrence. In its place -- with clear references to Washington's goal of overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein -- is a doctrine that calls for preemptive strikes against terrorist groups as well as countries that may be supporting planned terrorist attacks against the United States.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the one notable leader of a NATO member state that has sided unequivocally with the Bush administration on the need for military strikes against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Blair's administration today released a dossier alleging that Saddam Hussein has direct control over chemical and biological weapons, and has military plans to use them. It also alleges that he has secretly attempted to acquire technology and materials to build nuclear weapons -- including attempts to obtain significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civilian nuclear power program.

Key allies like France and Germany have expressed doubts about a war to oust Saddam Hussein in the absence of Security Council authorization.

Relations between the United States and Germany have been damaged by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's strong opposition to a potential U.S.-led war against Iraq, a stance he used as part of his successful re-election campaign strategy.

Rumsfeld yesterday refused to meet with his German counterpart in Warsaw, and he told reporters that Schroeder's campaign had "poisoned" relations with the United States.

Analysts say the development has exposed a widening political gulf that could extend to other European countries.

Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, is sending Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to the Warsaw meeting as an observer.

Russia has for decades followed a pro-Arab foreign policy. And most Arab states have been outspoken in their opposition to military strikes against Iraq.

It is only during the last year that Russia has entered into closer post-Cold War relations with Washington. The U.S. goal of regime change in Iraq, and Russia's opposition to a new UN resolution against Iraq, is testing that rapprochement.

Aboard Rumsfeld's aircraft on 22 September as he traveled to Warsaw, the U.S. defense secretary told reporters that he planned to discuss with the NATO ministers the possibility of military operations against Iraq:

"We have briefed the ambassadors to NATO countries at the Pentagon. And we will be discussing the nexus between weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, and terrorist states and networks, including Iraq."

But Rumsfeld said he did not intend to use the informal gathering in Warsaw to seek NATO support for military action. He said he did not expect unanimous support among the 19 NATO countries about Washington's approach to Iraq.

Rumsfeld also said the briefings on Iraq that will be presented by Pentagon officials during the Warsaw meeting would be classified.

He refused to discuss specific military plans on Iraq. But he said that the Bush administration is now focusing on trying to explain its new policy of using preemptive strikes to eliminate what Washington considers to be threats against the United States:

"[What] President [Bush] is trying to do and what the Secretary of State [Colin Powell] is [doing] at the United Nations, and what we will be doing at NATO, is trying to help people connect the dots before something happens rather than afterwards."

It is in this environment that the NATO defense ministers also will have their last opportunity to discuss, face-to-face, the alliance's proposed eastward expansion before the Prague summit in November.

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski says the government in Warsaw hopes seven former communist candidate countries will be invited to join NATO in Prague.

They are the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

Another idea that Rumsfeld is expected to raise with his NATO counterparts is the creation of a NATO-led rapid-reaction force designed to fight outside the alliance's borders.

Rumsfeld said Washington wants to streamline NATO's military operations so that the alliance can confront the kind of security threats that have arisen since the attacks of 11 September in the United States.

He said the aim should be a military force that can respond to a crisis in a matter of days, rather than in weeks or months.

Former NATO commander General George Joulwan said he thinks such a force would greatly enhance NATO: "You need to take the good integrated command structure of the alliance and marry it now with capability. A good solid capability in command, control, communication, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance."

Pentagon officials have suggested that the NATO rapid-reaction force should include up to 20,000 troops with high-tech weapons and the ability to defend themselves against chemical and biological attacks.