BRUSSELS, Belgium – NATO (search)'s 19 nations agreed unanimously Wednesday to start planning to help Poland lead a multinational peacekeeping force in Iraq, a move that begins to heal the alliance's deep divisions over the war.
Although the plans involve only modest technical assistance, the step also marks the possibility of a wider role for NATO in postwar Iraq.
"The first important and indeed critical step was taken today by unanimity," NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson (search) said.
The apparent ease with which allies reached the deal is in stark contrast with the acrimonious dispute before the war in Iraq, when France, German and Belgium held up sending defensive units to Turkey for weeks to emphasize their opposition to the U.S.-led war.
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, France and Germany have sought to repair ties with Washington.
French diplomats said Paris had no objection to authorizing the help to the Poles, who are expected to assemble at least 7,000 peacekeepers to work between a U.S.-run northern zone and the British-controlled south.
The assistance is also expected to involve intelligence sharing, communications and logistics, but no direct NATO involvement on the ground.
Robertson said the planning would be done as quickly as possible. NATO military experts will talk with the Poles to see what they need and provide a list of available support, he said.
Although limited, U.S. officials see NATO's involvement in Iraq -- and a recent decision to take on peacekeeping in Afghanistan -- as signs the alliance is making good on pledges to reinvent itself to face global challenges after the Cold War.
Diplomats at NATO headquarters have also been discussing the coalition playing a central role in a longer-term peacekeeping mission. Although allies remain open to the idea, Robertson stressed that no decision on that was imminent.
"We're not talking about a NATO presence in Iraq," he said. "We're talking purely and simply about NATO help to Poland."
However, diplomats said the sort of assistance NATO is considering for Poland in Iraq is very similar to that provided this year to the German-Dutch-led force keeping peace in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Eventually NATO agreed to take full command of that Afghan operation beginning in August -- NATO's first mission outside its traditional Euro-Atlantic theater.
The Iraq mission is a test for Poland, which only joined NATO in 1999, and has struggled to modernize and restructure its military since the collapse of communism in 1989.
Poland is expected to provide 2,200 troops and will host a conference later this week with nations willing to contribute to the force.