BRUSSELS, Belgium – NATO (search) diplomats edged closer Thursday to a deal on how to carry out promised training for Iraqi forces, with debate shifting from where the mission would be based to nitty-gritty issues over who would pay and who would lead it.
Two days of closed-door debates appeared to overcome French-led resistance to a high-profile alliance role inside Iraq (search), which Washington had pressed for, officials said.
"We are definitely aiming to have a decision, and that decision will essentially push a green button for the training mission, inside and outside" Iraq, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Bush administration, eager to demonstrate growing international backing for its Iraq policy, would prefer a major mission in Iraq under NATO command. Yet Paris fears sending NATO forces could be a first step to military engagement, and would likely undermine the new Iraqi government's credibility and sovereignty.
Officials said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (search) was optimistic the 26 NATO countries would reach a consensus by Friday on the exact nature of the training missions, which were agreed to by leaders at their summit a month ago.
During a July 13 visit to Brussels, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on NATO to deliver the training and other aid "urgently," warning that Iraq faced "a race against time" to improve security before elections scheduled for January.
The delays echoed the alliance crisis before the Iraq war, when France, joined for a time by Germany and Belgium, blocked agreement for weeks on defensive aid to Turkey because of their opposition to U.S. military action.
Both sides have sought in recent months to put the past behind them, yet irritants keep surfacing.
There was disagreement over whether the mission should be commonly funded by all allies, like the NATO peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, or only by those sending troops.
France and Germany have insisted they would not send their troops into Iraq, but could train Iraqis outside the country.
Even more sensitive politically was the question of whether the mission commander should also be part of the chain of command of the U.S.-led coalition already there.
Although that force would likely be called on to protect the NATO mission, having the commander wear two hats could be seen as blurring the distinction.
So far NATO's role in Iraq has been limited to providing logistical backup to a Polish-led division working with the American troops. Although 16 NATO members already have some troops there, they are not under the NATO flag.
In addition to training, Zebari has asked for military hardware, help guarding Iraq's borders, and protection for a U.N. mission in the country.