ISTANBUL, Turkey – NATO leaders agreed Monday to help train Iraq's armed forces, responding to a request from the incoming Iraqi government.
"We have decided today to offer NATO's assistance to the government of Iraq with the training of its security forces," said a statement adopted in the opening session of the NATO summit.
A statement called on alliance officials to "urgently" discuss details of the training plan with the Iraqi authorities. NATO said it would also urgently consider "further proposals to support the nascent Iraqi security institutions."
The number of NATO instructors to be deployed and the timing of the operation were unclear, but the move will give NATO a military presence on the ground in Iraq for the first time. Sixteen nations have sent troops individually to join coalition forces in Iraq.
The initiative came as NATO leaders opened a summit Monday dominated by the situation in Iraq as the U.S.-led administration handed over power to an Iraqi government two days ahead of schedule in an apparent attempt to surprise insurgents.
"We will challenge these elements in Iraq, the antidemocratic elements, by even bringing the handover of sovereignty before June 30 as a sign we are ready for it," Iraq's interim Foreign Minster Hoshyar Zebari (search) said after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) on the margin of the NATO meeting.
The transfer of power had been scheduled for Wednesday.
President Bush declared Sunday in Turkey that the alliance was poised to "meet the threats of the 21st century."
Earlier Sunday, Bush sought to strengthen ties with vital ally Turkey, a task complicated by threats from Iraqi militants to decapitate three Turks unless the country's companies stop aiding U.S. forces in Iraq.
Turks overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq. Bush, who arrived in the country Saturday, is widely unpopular here — more than 40,000 Turks turned out for a peaceful protest Sunday against his visit and the NATO summit.
On Monday, police used tear gas to stop hundreds of protesters from approaching the conference center where NATO leaders were meeting in Istanbul.
The protesters threw fire-bombs and several police and protesters were injured and were evacuated to local hospitals.
With Bush in town and NATO leaders gathering, Turkish security forces sealed off a large sections of Istanbul amid fears of terrorist attacks and violent protests. Fighter planes flew overhead and 23,000 police and security forces patrolled the streets.
"We have shown that were are firmly resolved to confront risks and threats to our security well beyond NATO's traditional zone of operation," said alliance Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (search) as the leaders prepared to confirm the decision on training Iraq's forces.
However, the decision falls well short of U.S. hopes that NATO would assume a major military role in Iraq, perhaps by taking over the multinational-division currently run by Poland.
Opposition from France and Germany has ensured that NATO won't deploy large numbers of troops and differences persist between those nations and the United States over the implementation of the training program.
While Washington foresees a significant NATO involvement, including the setting up of an alliance command in Iraq, Paris and Berlin prefer a lower profile operation, with NATO coordinating national training programs.
Both France and Germany said they prefer to help with training officers outside the country. The United States hopes the training mission could be the first step to a wider NATO role.
The declaration to be adopted by the leaders calls for NATO envoys "to develop on an urgent basis the modalities to implement this decision with the Iraqi government."
Zebari met with his counterparts from NATO nations in Istanbul and diplomats said de Hoop Scheffer may travel soon to Baghdad for more talks.
The summit is also expected to announce an expansion of NATO's peacekeeping mission, in Afghanistan which is currently limited to 6,400 troops in the capital, Kabul, and the northern city of Kunduz.
The summit is expected to authorize more troops for five northern cities and short term deployment of up to 3,000 for election security in September.
Alliance plans for a bigger role in Afghanistan are well behind schedule because nations have been reluctant to provide necessary troops and equipment.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long urged a wider NATO role and is expected to attend the summit Tuesday.
The summit is also set to offer a new program of defense cooperation to Middle Eastern nations, agree to hand over peacekeeping in Bosnia to the European Union and set up permanent NATO diplomatic missions in Central Asia and the Caucasus.