After weeks of opposition from France and Germany, NATO tentatively agreed Thursday to start carrying out an American military plan to protect Turkey in case of a war on Iraq.
France and Germany -- or any other opponents -- have until Monday to raise objections, otherwise the military preparations will start automatically, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said.
Diplomats said the planned measures include the deployment of AWAC surveillance planes, Patriot anti-missile systems, in-air refueling planes and NATO's anti-chemical, biological and nuclear weapons center.
France, Germany and Belgium had held up the start of military planning -- requested by the United States -- for almost three weeks, arguing that it would send the wrong signal while U.N. efforts to avert a war continue.
After a meeting of the 19 allies, Lord Robertson announced the agreement to use the so-called "silence procedure" in implementing the plan.
The "silence procedure" usually signifies agreement has been reached, but allows governments to look at the fine points back home before ultimately signing off.
NATO diplomats had hoped an appeal for help from Turkey and Secretary of State Colin Powell's indictment of Iraq's arms programs at the United Nations Wednesday would have swayed the holdouts, but again they forced a delay in making a final decision.
"Does that mean that there is continuing disagreement on the timing issue in NATO? Yes it does," Robertson said. "But I am confident that we will reach a decision early next week."
He stressed there "is complete agreement on the substance" of the measures to defend Turkey. "NATO's solidarity with Turkey is not in doubt," Robertson insisted.
The continued resistance came despite a dilution of the original list of possible support measures for NATO troops in an eventual war that was put forward by the United States last month.
On the table for agreement on Monday are plans to send to Turkey AWACS surveillance planes based in Germany, Patriot anti-missile defense systems from the Netherlands and military units specialized in responding to chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.
The proposals also call for other NATO allies to defend U.S. bases in Europe and replace troops sent to the Gulf from NATO's peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Robertson called the options "prudent, deterrent and defensive."
Plans for NATO to prepare a peacekeeping role in a postwar Iraq or to offer logistical support, such as airlift or secure communications, to any ally that decides to participate in a U.S.-led attack on Iraq were removed, although officials said they could be reactivated later.
Despite the changes, it was not clear if the three holdouts would change their position. In a statement issued just before the end of the NATO meeting, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said "it is premature to take a decision now already about the possible involvement of NATO in the Iraq crisis."
However, Michel said Belgium did not "reject that possibility out of hand."
There was no immediate reaction from Berlin or Paris.
Going into the special meeting of NATO's policy-setting North Atlantic Council, Belgian officials indicated their country and France and Germany would continue to push for a delay, despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's indictment of Iraq's arms programs at the United Nations on Wednesday.
Turkey, the only NATO member bordering Iraq and a likely launching pad for military action against Baghdad, also has appealed to the alliance to begin planning to protect it against any Iraqi counterstrike.
"If this is not done, then the credibility and deterrence of the military alliance will come to zero," Turkish Foreign Minister Yaser Yakis warned last weekend in Ankara.
The three holdouts say they have no objections in principle to the proposals for protecting Turkey and other options set out by the United States, which include increased naval patrols in the Mediterranean and filling in for U.S. troops sent from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf.
In a radio interview Thursday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said France's view on war against Iraq was unchanged after Powell's speech, reiterating that "force can only be a last resort, but we do not exclude any possibility, including that of force."
Luxembourg, which had stood alongside the French, Germans and Belgians in opposing the start of planning, said Wednesday it would now back Turkey's appeal for NATO help.