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Nato struggles to close worst rift in history

Brussels, Feb. 11 (Reuters): Nato struggled today to repair one of the biggest rifts in its 54-year-old history, but France, Germany and Belgium gave no sign they would back alliance preparations for a possible US-led war against Iraq.

Serious differences of opinion over Iraq were laid bare at a meeting yesterday as the three European nations held up military deployments for Nato member Turkey intended to protect it from Iraqi retaliation if US troops attack Iraq from Turkish soil.

“There’s no hint of any change on position from the French,” said one official at the 19-nation alliance. “But if only one country holds out it would be a different dynamic than three.”

Nato secretary-general George Robertson called off a key meeting of alliance ambassadors at the last minute, deciding to rely for now on informal consultations to break the deadlock.

A Nato official said ambassadors would probably convene for a formal session at 1530 GMT today.

While Nato grappled with its stance over Iraq, the EU, which includes many Nato member states, announced that heads of state and government would gather for a summit on Iraq next Monday in Brussels.

France, Germany and Belgium yesterday argued, to US annoyance, that to send Turkey AWACS surveillance planes, Patriot missiles and anti-chemical and biological warfare teams would be a premature signal war had begun and diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis were over.

Turkey made clear it believed the alliance had a duty to start military preparations to defend it after all Ankara had done to protect its front line through decades of Cold War.

“Turkey defended the whole of Europe during the Cold War period. It was a shield for Europe.

“So there is no doubt that Nato must do what falls to it,” Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters in Ankara.

Separately, France, Russia and Germany yesterday jointly set out their alternative to US war plans: more arms inspections in Iraq, more diplomacy and more time.

France, which maintains there is no “undisputed proof” Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and Russia have veto powers on the UN Security Council which could kill any new resolution authorising war. Germany is currently president of the Council.

China, which also holds veto power, welcomed the Franco-German-Russian proposals.

“We support any effort that is beneficial to settling the Iraq issue politically,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told a news conference.

In Berlin, a senior German government source said all but four of the 15 UN Security Council members supported prolonging weapons inspections in Iraq.

The countries supporting the US view that “the game is over” for Iraq are Britain, Spain and Bulgaria, the source said.

“But the rest of the members of the Security Council support the position of the German government.”

The Nato rift is the worst since members argued over the deployment of US cruise missiles in Europe in the 1980s.

Laying bare a split with France, US President George W. Bush called the move “shortsighted”. “I am disappointed that France would block Nato from helping a country like Turkey prepare. I don’t understand that decision. It affects the alliance in a negative way,” Bush told reporters.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld slammed their stalling action a “disgrace”. He said, however, it would not delay any attack on Iraq.

Diplomats in Brussels said the initiative had come from French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, but that others had serious doubts about appearing to resist helping an ally.

One senior Nato official said the majority of the 19 allies were determined not to allow Turkey to go defenceless.

In Ankara, Gul quashed a newspaper report that Turkey had offered a safe haven to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein if he stepped down to prevent a war.

On Friday, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and his fellow inspection chief Mohamed ElBaradei report to the UN Security Council on Iraq’s cooperation with arms inspectors.

Blix has gathered a panel of rocket scientists to determine if Iraq's missile programmes violated UN resolutions ahead of his crucial report.

He also scheduled a meeting tomorrow of his advisory board to review Iraq’s cooperation.

In the Gulf, preparations for war by tens of thousands of Western troops, mostly Americans, continued apace.

US and British planes patrolling southern Iraq attacked a mobile air-defence unit, the second such incident in three days, the US military said.

Iraq said two civilians had been killed.

Iraq’s UN ambassador Mohammed Aldouri made clear Baghdad was willing to give ground in the hope of averting attack, dropping its opposition to flights over Iraq of US spy planes on loan to the UN for weapons inspections.

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