NATO Cancels Meeting on Iraq Standoff

NATO canceled an emergency meeting to discuss its bitter standoff split over Iraq Thursday after Germany insisted any breakthrough would have to wait until a key United Nations meeting Friday.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck had earlier suggested his country would be prepared on Saturday to drop its opposition for NATO to start planning to help defend Turkey in case of war with Iraq.

It was unclear whether the two other holdouts — France and Belgium — would go along with the U.S-backed defense plans.

A fourth-straight day of crisis talks by the policy setting North Atlantic Council was first postponed, then called off late in the day. There was no decision on whether the ambassadors would reconvene again Friday.

After a month of resistance, Germany, France and Belgium say they will only consider the start of NATO planning for Turkey's defense after U.N. wapons inspectors present their latest report on Iraq's cooperation Friday in New York.

Struck told the parliament in Berlin that action in NATO's policy-making body would come immediately afterward.

"Germany's position is completely clear," he said. "We will have a decision in the North Atlantic Council at the latest Saturday, following the discussions in the U.N. Security Council Friday, which will absolutely satisfy Turkey's interests."

A request for clarification to the German Defense Ministry was not immediately answered.

France said its position was unchanged. In Paris, Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau said starting the NATO defense planning would suggest support for military action against Iraq and "prejudge decisions that belong to the Security Council."

Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Didier Seeuws said there may be a deal Saturday but much would depend on the content of the weapons inspectors' report.

Germany, France and Belgium have held out for four weeks against the U.S.-backed request to draft plans to send Turkey AWACS surveillance planes, Patriot missiles and biochemical units to protect against any Iraqi counterstrike.

They maintain that starting military planning now is premature and could undercut U.N. efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis peacefully.

NATO officials reacted with caution to Struck's comments.

They said no meeting had yet been scheduled for Saturday and repeated the view of the United States and 15 other allies that planning to help Turkey should start as soon as possible.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the same parliament debate that "occasional differences of opinion" did not endanger the alliance.

"For us, solidarity with Turkey, and our solidarity within the alliance, is beyond question," he said. But, he said, "together with our French and Belgian friends, we consider it inappropriate to have a formal NATO decision on the start of planning for a war before the discussions of the Security Council."

Turkey is the only NATO nation bordering Iraq and is likely to become the base for U.S. troops opening up a northern front in any war.

Crisis talks began Monday at NATO headquarters after Turkey invoked the alliance's core mutual defense treaty, but the trio refused to budge despite charges from the United States and the 15 other allies that continued division weakens NATO solidarity and sends a dangerous message of disunity to Saddam Hussein.

The continued rebuffs brought an irate response from the United States. "It would be much better if NATO would act as an alliance ... and not allow itself to be tied up in knots by three of the 19 nations," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington Wednesday.

The continued standoff at NATO headquarters has cast doubt on U.S. chances of gaining support from the world body for war against Iraq for Baghdad's alleged failure to disarm.

In Washington, Powell told Congress that he would press the French and German foreign ministers to say how much more time they would give the inspectors or whether they were only trying to get Iraq "off the hook."

"That is the question I will put to them Friday," Powell said.

A decision by the Security Council to block military action could produce a major break between Washington and most of the world's other big powers.

France, Germany and Russia say they see no reason for launching an attack on Iraq, insisting that weapons inspectors be given more time, manpower and equipment to peacefully disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

The dispute is damaging NATO unity at an already difficult time for an alliance born in the Cold War that is trying to reinvent itself as force to tackle fighting terrorism and rogue states.

The resistance of France, Germany and Belgium continued despite the scaling down of the proposals originally put forward by the United States to focus planning solely on Turkey, dropping plans for the alliance to fill in for troops sent to the Gulf from peacekeeping duty in the Balkans or to guard U.S. bases in Europe.

Those issues were already being tackled bilaterally, notably by Germany which has deployed 999 soldiers to protect 18 U.S. facilities around the country.