NATO is prepared to support a U.N. force in the Darfur region of Sudan, the alliance's secretary-general told President Bush in a White House visit on Monday.

"I'm quite sure, as I told the president, that when the U.N. comes, the NATO allies will be ready to do more in enabling a United Nations force in Darfur," Jaap De Hoop Scheffer told reporters after his meeting with Bush.

Bush has called for greater NATO involvement in Darfur, which the United Nations has described as the world's gravest humanitarian crisis. The conflict there has left more than 180,000 people dead and 2 million displaced.

But Bush said the African Union must request that its mission in Darfur be converted to a U.N. mission. When that happens, NATO can move in with U.S. help "to make it clear to the Sudanese government that we're intent upon providing security for the people there and intent upon helping work toward a lasting peace agreement," Bush said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with the NATO secretary-general, said Monday "NATO can play a very important role in enhancing the capabilities of African Union forces."
De Hoop Scheffer, repeating what he said at the White House while having his picture taken with Rice, said he was "quite sure that when that question comes that the NATO allies will stand ready to support that mission in Darfur."

"I'm not talking about NATO forces on the ground," he said later as he left the State Department. "But could you enable the mission by giving logistical support, by going on in the transport of the forces, by giving training, then I think the NATO allies would take a very positive stand on that."

After talks with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the NATO secretary-general held a news conference in which he underscored the point that NATO could not act until after the African mission is converted to a U.N. mission.

Declining to predict when all the pieces would fall into place, De Hoop Scheffer said, "I fully share everybody's frustration and indignation about what is happening in Darfur."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack issued a statement, meanwhile, criticizing the Sudanese government's closing of several U.S.-supported social development, health and food distribution offices.

McCormack urged the government in Khartoum to remove immediately all obstacles to delivery of humanitarian assistance and to provide protection for civilians and aids workers.

Earlier this month Sudan and the African Union agreed to extend the mandate of AU peacekeeping forces in Darfur to September, at which time they would be allowed to be merged into a larger U.N. force. But later Sudan said it will reject the proposed deployment of U.N. forces to Darfur.

Bush praised NATO's role in Afghanistan and its work training Iraqi security forces.

De Hoop Scheffer said all 26 NATO members have been assisting in the Iraqi training mission.

"I want to see NATO-trained Iraqi officers taking their responsibility in fighting the terrorists in their own country," he said.