Published February 15, 2003
| Associated Press
BRUSSELS, Belgium – Belgium offered a compromise Saturday to end a bitter dispute within the NATO alliance over providing military aid to Turkey in advance of a possible war against Iraq.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said Belgium, France and Germany would endorse a U.S. proposal for such help if NATO makes clear the aid is defensive in nature and must not be seen as making the alliance a participant in war preparations against Iraq.
NATO called an urgent session of the ambassadors of its 19 member states for Sunday to discuss the proposal.
Verhofstadt said his government has been consulting with France and Germany on language letting the three countries drop their vetoes against plans to deploy early-warning aircraft, missile defenses and anti-biochemical units to Turkey, the only NATO country bordering Iraq.
The thrust of the compromise was to "avoid above all that this decision is a first step in a buildup to war," Verhofstadt said.
The refusals by Belgium, France and Germany to endorse any military planning for Turkey -- which has requested assistance from its fellow allies -- plunged NATO into its deepest crisis since the Cold War ended.
Until now, aid for Turkey has been discussed by all 19 NATO nations. Sunday's meeting, however, will be held by the Defense Planning Committee, in which France does not participate. France only attends political discussions since leaving NATO's integrated military command structure in the late 1960s.
Belgium, France and Germany all have said in the past month that sending military hardware to Turkey would undercut efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis.
The other 16 allies argued that withholding support planning for Turkey's defense only will erode NATO's core credibility and send the wrong signal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Verhofstadt said under his compromise, the NATO allies would have to "make it explicitly clear that (aid for Turkey) does not imply participation of NATO in a military operation against Iraq."
Also, aid for Turkey must be defensive in nature and the allies must commit themselves to a "permanent monitoring" of the Iraq debate in the U.N. Security Council.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder refused to comment earlier Saturday on divisions within NATO.
But while Schroeder reiterated his support for continued U.N. weapons inspections to disarm Iraq without war, he shrugged off the rift between Europe and the United States over the crisis.
"Everybody must understand that with such a long and intensive friendship, even on a daily basis ... that even in old and good friendships there can be differences," he said in Finland, where he met with Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen.
Verhofstadt spoke one day after U.N. weapons inspectors issued reports at the Security Council that encouraged opponents of military action.
In the wake of the new reports, efforts in European capitals to de-escalate the crisis at NATO picked up, diplomats and officials in Brussels said.
A senior diplomatic source said earlier in the day that the allies were working on a statement reaffirming the alliance's "solidarity and determination to stick to its obligations" to Turkey.