| Nato secretary-general George Robertson in Brussels. (AFP)
Brussels, Feb. 10 (Reuters): France, Germany and Belgium split Nato today by blocking a plan to strengthen Turkish defences against Iraq in readiness for war, provoking Washington to accuse the rebels of plunging the alliance into crisis.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted, however, that the dispute would not delay any attack on Iraq and did not threaten the survival of the 19-member military alliance.
The three European states, trying to slow the rush to war, argued that sending the military aid to Turkey would be a “bad signal” that conflict had begun. Turkey, which borders Iraq, promptly invoked Nato’s founding treaty to demand consultations on the defence of its territory.
Behind the spat over Turkey lies a deeper division among Nato members over whether to go to war to disarm Iraq or use more diplomacy and more time. Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix said he saw little new evidence on Iraqi weapons in documents Baghdad gave him at the weekend.
“This time they presented some papers to us in which they focused upon new issues. Not new evidence, really, as far as I can see, but they have nevertheless focused on real open issues and that is welcome,” Blix said on arriving in Athens from Baghdad.
In Brussels, France, Germany and Belgium blocked proposals to start planning for the deployment of Awacs surveillance planes, Patriot missiles and anti-chemical and anti-biological warfare teams to Turkey.
Turkey responded by invoking Nato’s Article IV, which says that “parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”.
The US ambassador to Nato denounced what he called “a most unfortunate decision by three allies to prevent Nato from assisting the legitimate defence needs of Turkey,” which fears reprisals if US forces invade Iraq from its territory.
“Because of their actions, Nato is now facing a crisis of credibility,” the envoy, Nicholas Burns, told reporters.
Anticipating the blocking move, Rumsfeld had earlier denounced it as “a disgrace”. Asked at a news conference later if it would delay a possible attack, he said: “No, because the planning’s going to go forward outside of Nato if necessary.”
France, Germany and Belgium issued a one-sentence statement affirming their solidarity with Turkey and determination to meet Nato obligations, without indicating any shift in their stance.
Nato secretary-general George Robertson called the deadlock “very serious” but said a solution could be at hand. Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis called it a dispute over timing and predicted the blocking countries would fall into line.
Europe has been deeply divided over US threats to attack Iraq within the next few weeks unless Baghdad declares its alleged chemical, biological and nuclear arms programmes.
Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal and new Nato members from eastern Europe have supported the tough US line.
Pope John Paul sent an envoy, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, to Iraq today. Iraq’s Vatican ambassador, A. Amir Alanbari, said in an interview that Baghdad would welcome a visit by the pope himself.
A key date will be Friday, when Blix and his fellow inspection chief Mohamed ElBaradei report to the UN Security Council on Baghdad’s cooperation with arms inspectors in Iraq.